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Tamed Dragon supply ship arrives at space station

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Jan. 15, 2013: The Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, Dragon spacecraft stands inside a processing hangar at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.NASA/Kim Shiflett

A privately owned Dragon capsule arrived safely at the International Space Station on Sunday, delivering a ton of supplies, after a shaky, nerve-wracking start to its mission.

The Dragon's arrival was one day late but especially sweet -- and not because of the fresh fruit on board for the station astronauts who snared the capsule.

SpaceX, the California-based company founded by billionaire Elon Musk who helped create PayPal, had to struggle with the Dragon following its Friday launch. A clogged pressure line or stuck valve prevented the Dragon's thrusters from working, and it took flight controllers several hours to gain control and salvage the mission.

In the end, the Dragon approached the orbiting lab with its 1-ton load about as smoothly as could be expected, with all of its thrusters operating perfectly. The capture occurred as the two spacecraft zoomed nearly 250 miles above Ukraine.

"As they say, it's not where you start, but where you finish that counts," said space station commander Kevin Ford, "and you guys really finished this one on the mark."

He added: "We've got lots of science on there to bring aboard and get done. So congratulations to all of you."

Among the items on board: 640 seeds of a flowering weed used for research, mouse stem cells, food and clothes for the six men on board the space station, trash bags, computer equipment, air purifiers, spacewalking tools and batteries.

The Dragon will remain at the space station for most of March before returning to Earth with science samples, empty food containers and old equipment.

SpaceX -- Space Exploration Technologies Corp. -- has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to keep the station well stocked. The contract calls for 12 supply runs; this was the second in that series.

This is the third time, however, that a Dragon has visited the space station. The previous two capsules had no trouble reaching its destination. Company officials promise a thorough investigation into what went wrong this time; if the thrusters had not been activated, the capsule would have been lost.

In a tweet following Friday's drama, Musk said, "Just want to say thanks to (at)NASA for being the world's coolest customer. Looking forward to delivering the goods!"

Musk acknowledged Friday that the problem -- the first ever for an orbiting Dragon -- was "frightening." But he was certain SpaceX would prevail, and he was right. He oversaw the entire operation from Hawthorne, Calif., home to SpaceX and the company's Mission Control.

The Dragon's splashdown in the Pacific is set for March 25.