First Private Capsule to Dock at Space Station Returns to Earth

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By the CNN Wire Staff

The unmanned SpaceX Dragon capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off Baja California on Thursday, completing the first commercial flight to the International Space Station, NASA and company controllers reported.

The SpaceX Dragon capsule landed at 8:42 a.m. (11:42 a.m. ET), controllers said. SpaceX founder Elon Musk was on hand at the company’s mission control center near Los Angeles as operators monitored the descent.

The capsule was bobbing in the swells about 560 miles offshore after its parachutes detached, a NASA aircraft circling the site reported.

The capsule’s return comes nine days after it took off on its historic mission, during which it delivered food, clothing, computer equipment and supplies for science experiments to the orbital platform and returned with about 1,300 pounds of cargo — everything from trash to scientific research and experimental samples.

The space station’s robotic arm released the Dragon at 5:35 a.m. ET. A thruster burn a minute later pushed the spacecraft away from its host, according to SpaceX, the private company that built and operates the vessel.

Its re-entry mimicked the way Apollo capsules returned to Earth after putting men on the moon in the 1960s and 1970s, but which fell out of use during the space shuttle era. Recovery divers were waiting on boats just outside the projecting landing area, ready to secure the spacecraft and tow it to a barge with a crane to hoist the space vehicle aboard.

SpaceX calls its capsule is “the only spacecraft capable of returning a significant amount of cargo from the space station,” saying that other vehicles which deliver cargo to the International Space Station are destroyed after they leave the station.

Dragon was launched May 22 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. NASA collaborated with SpaceX on every part of the mission and gave final authorization for the flight.

Dragon reached the station Friday and was “captured” by the station’s robotic arm.

The mission, hailed by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. as a step toward a new future of private innovation in the space industry, comes as government funding of the space program decreases. It also marks the culmination of six years of preparation to bring commercial flights to the space station after the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet in 2011, which left the United States with no means of independently sending humans into space.

Without the shuttle, NASA relies on the Russian space agency to ferry U.S. astronauts to orbit and has limited capabilities to send supplies to the station and bring them back. Dragon fills a need in taking significant payload back and forth, current ISS astronaut Don Pettit said.

In December 2008, NASA announced it had chosen SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft to resupply the International Space Station after the shuttle’s retirement. The $1.6 billion contract involves a minimum of 12 flights, with an option to order more missions for additional cost, according to SpaceX.

SpaceX is one of a few of private companies receiving NASA funds to develop the capability for commercial transport of astronauts into space. Musk, who founded the internet service PayPal, has said the commercial program’s fixed-price, pay-for-performance contracts make fiscal sense for taxpayers and fosters competition among companies on reliability, capability and cost.

Astronaut Joe Acaba, also aboard the space station, called the mission a great first step in the commercialization of spaceflight, and Pettit agreed.

“Commercial spaceflight will blossom due to its own merits, and doesn’t really hinge on one mission,” Pettit said. “It will hinge on the viability of launching many missions over a long period of time and being able to provide useful commercial goods and services in the low-Earth orbit arena.”

SpaceX is now developing a heavy-lift rocket with twice the cargo capability of the space shuttle and hopes to build a spacecraft that could carry a crew to Mars.

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