The first privately developed ship to travel to the International Space Station returned home yesterday, completing a pioneering mission for commercial firms seeking a major role in space travel.
Riding beneath three parachutes, the bell-shaped SpaceX Dragon capsule ended a nine-day spaceflight and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean about 560 miles west of Baja California at 11:42 a.m. EDT (1542 GMT). Dragon, built and flown by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, returned home with a load of cargo from the $100 billion space station, where it spent the past six days. “It really couldn’t have gone better,” SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk told reporters. “I’m just overwhelmed with joy.”
The United States has been without its own transportation to the station, a project of 15 nations, since its space shuttles were retired last year. Rather than build and operate a government-owned replacement, NASA is investing in companies such as SpaceX, with the aim of buying rides for its cargo – and eventually astronauts – on commercial vehicles, a far cheaper alternative. “This really shows that commercial spaceflight can be successful,” Musk said.
The test flight will likely clear SpaceX to begin working on its 12-flight, $1.6 billion NASA contract to fly cargo to the station. A second commercial freighter, built by Orbital Sciences Corp, is expected to debut this year. Orbital has a similar contract valued at $1.9 billion to deliver space station cargo.
RELEASE THE DRAGON
In Thursday’s operation, astronauts used the station’s 58-foot long (17.7-meter) robotic crane to detach the Dragon capsule from its berthing port at 4:07 a.m. EDT (0807 GMT) as the spacecraft soared around Earth at 17,500 miles per hour (28,164 kilometers per hour). Dragon was released about 90 minutes later to begin its trip back home.
SpaceX successfully recovered a Dragon capsule from orbit during a previous test flight in December 2010. “We’ve done it once, but it’s still a very challenging phase of flight,” SpaceX mission director John Couluris told reporters before the splashdown. “The ability to get to (the) space station on our first time, to not only rendezvous but then to berth, transfer cargo and depart safely are major mission objectives. We would call that mission alone a success,” Couluris said.
Recovery ships owned by American Marine Corp of Los Angeles were standing by to pick up the capsule and bring it back to the Port of Los Angeles, a trip that should take two days. Dragon will then be taken to a SpaceX processing facility in McGregor, Texas, where it will be unloaded and inspected. The rest of the 1,300 lb (590 kg) of gear returning on Dragon is expected to be sent to NASA within two weeks, said flight director Holly Ridings.
The company’s next test will be to determine if it can speedily return some equipment from the station to NASA within 48 hours, a practice run for ferrying home precious scientific samples when Dragon begins regular cargo hauls.
European, Japanese and Russian cargo ships now flying to the station only make one-way trips, leaving Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which are used to transport crew and have little room for cargo, as the only vehicles now flying that return to Earth.