If thrusters stalled like this on a manned mission, Musk said, the outcome wouldn't necessarily be grim. The capsule is designed to return to Earth with just two good sets of thrusters and, in "a super worst case situation," conceivably just one although it would be "a bit of a wobbly trip."
The space station was orbiting 250 miles above the Atlantic, just off the New England coast, when the Falcon soared. Astronauts will use a hefty robot arm to draw the Dragon in and dock it to the station.
Also on board with the fruit: 640 seeds of a flowering weed used for research, mouse stems cells, protein crystals, astronaut meals and clothing, trash bags, air-purifying devices, computer parts and other gear.
NASA's deputy administrator, Lori Garver, said using commercial providers is more efficient for the space agency. It's part of a long-term program, she noted, that has NASA spending less money on low-Earth orbit and investing more in deep-space missions. That's one reason why the space shuttles were retired in 2011 after the station was completed.
The goal is to have SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies Corp., and other private firms take over the job of ferrying astronauts to and from the space station. Russia does that now — for a steep price.
Competitor Orbital Sciences Corp. has yet to get off its Virginia launch pad. The company plans to launch a free-flying test of its Antares rocket and Cygnus supply ship in April, followed by a demo run to the space station in early summer.
Russia, Japan and Europe regularly make station deliveries as well. But only the Dragon is designed to bring back substantial amounts of research and used goods. The other supply ships burn up upon re-entry.
The newest Dragon is scheduled to spend more than three weeks at the space station before being cut loose by the crew. It will parachute into the Pacific with more than a ton of medical samples, plant and cell specimens, Japanese fish and old machinery, and used spacewalking gloves and other items.
SpaceX plans to launch its next Dragon to the station in late fall.
More than 2,000 guests jammed the Cape Canaveral launch site Friday morning to watch the Falcon take flight. It wasn't much of a show because of all the clouds.
The successful separation of the Dragon from the rocket was broadcast live on NASA TV; on-board cameras provided the unique views nine minutes into the flight.
Then the trouble struck, and the coverage ended.
"It's looking like we're going to be back on track here," Musk later assured everyone.