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Kirk Shireman, manager of Nasa's International Space Station programme, said: "You'll hear us talk about this being a flight test; it absolutely is".

Tourists flocked to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida to watch the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket at 2.49am local time on Saturday.

After docking to the station, Dragon's hatch will be opened, and the station crew will board the spacecraft to perform inspections.

California's SpaceX firm has carried out a demonstration of a new rocket and capsule combination.

The white, bullet-shaped Dragon capsule, developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company under contract to NASA, closed in on the orbiting station almost 260 miles above the Pacific Ocean and, flying autonomously, linked up on its own, without the help of the robotic arm normally used to guide spacecraft into position.

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The spacecraft is created to carry up to seven passengers to the space station, but for this flight, the capsule is loaded up with 450 pounds of cargo and a test dummy outfitted in one of SpaceX's customised spacesuits. Currently, it is Russian-made spaceships Soyuz that delivers USA astronauts to the ISS.

Since then, NASA has been relying on Russian rockets and space capsules to ferry its astronauts to and from the space station, for a reported cost of $80m per journey. Ripley is no mere dummy, but "an anthropomorphic test device outfitted with sensors to gather important data about what an astronaut flying aboard the spacecraft would experience throughout the mission", NASA says. "Just one more milestone that gets us ready for our flight coming up here". The capsule's nose cap was wide open like a dragon's mouth, to expose the docking mechanism.

The docking port itself is new and has never been used.

The successful maneuver was also greeted with cheers from the Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters of Elon Musk's ambitious space company.

To do that, the capsule is fitted with life-support systems, a fourth parachute (instead of the usual three) and more powerful thrusters to help control the vessel, should anything go wrong.

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After its shuttle program was shut down in July 2011 following a 30-year run, NASA began outsourcing the logistics of its space missions.

If the programme continues to go to plan, SpaceX and NASA plan to send humans back into space from the USA later this year.

"We instrumented the crap out of that vehicle", said Kathy Lueders, the manager of NASA's Commercial Crew program. The US government is also eager to have the ability to fly to the ISS without buying seats on Russian Soyuz capsules.

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule is tentatively scheduled for an unpiloted test flight at the end of April, followed by the company's first piloted launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket in August or September.

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