The Progress space capsule is carrying more than two tons of food, water and other supplies for the orbiting laboratory. Three Russian and three U.S. astronauts comprise the current crew.
None of the supplies were deemed necessary for the station's immediate survival and the outpost is well supplied, said NASA flight commentator Rob Navias.
The spokesman for Russian Mission Control outside Moscow, Valery Lyndin, said only that the failure was due to an unspecified technical problem. NASA said the failure was due to an antenna problem.
The Interfax-AVN news agency said space station commander Alexander Skvortsov reported the Progress was "rotating uncontrollably" as it neared the space station.
But NASA spokeswoman Brandi Dean said the unmanned cargo ship is still in control. It missed the station by about 1.9 miles (3 kilometers); an hour later the cargo ship was 4 miles (6.5 kilometers) ahead of the space station but in the same orbit, she said.
Another docking attempt was likely to be tried Sunday, said Vitaly Davydov, deputy director of the Russian space agency, according to the Interfax-AVN news agency.
The Russian Progress capsules have been a reliable supply system for the space station and their importance will increase with the end of the U.S. space shuttle program.
Navias said the loss of the automated docking system on the station "told the Progress essentially to continue on its path and fly past its intended docking target."
There is a backup system that is more active than the passive one that failed, Dean said. That would allow the crew on board the station to guide the unmanned ship themselves.
Russian mission control told the crew to go back to normal activities and the Johnson Space Center repositioned the station out of its docking mode, Navias said.