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SpaceX Dragon Capsule Splashes Down

  • Suzanne Presto

In this photo provided by SpaceX, the Dragon spacecraft floats on the surface of the Pacific Ocean about 500 miles off Mexico's Baja California after its mission to the International Space Station (ISS), May 31, 2012.
The private spacecraft Dragon, which made history last week when it became the first commercial capsule to dock with the International Space Station, returned to Earth Thursday.

"Once again, Dragon is free from the International Space Station, the crew backing away the robotic arm," NASA's Mission Control announced after the unmanned Dragon spacecraft departed the space station Thursday.

This NASA graphic depicts the location of the splashdown for the SpaceX Dragon capsule in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, May 31, 2012.
This NASA graphic depicts the location of the splashdown for the SpaceX Dragon capsule in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, May 31, 2012.
The capsule fired up its thrusters and later parachuted into the Pacific Ocean, west of California. It was all according to plan, and all less than a week after the capsule, designed by SpaceX, became the first commercial craft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

SpaceX's CEO Elon Musk spoke to reporters from the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, a few hours after Dragon's splashdown.
"Well, I guess my thoughts are, 'Welcome home, baby.' That's what I'm thinking," Musk said. "We're looking forward to seeing it [the Dragon capsule] arrive at the port and then unloading the cargo with NASA, and yeah, it's just...yeah, I feel really, really great. It's like seeing your kid come home."

Video of the SpaceX Dragon Capsule splashdown

Dragon is carrying experiments and used scientific equipment. Since NASA retired its shuttle fleet last year, the Dragon and the crew-carrying Russian Soyuz are the only spacecraft that can return to Earth.

Musk's relieved joy at the mission's success was a long time coming. He serves as the chief designer in addition to the company's CEO, and explained that he knows "a thousand ways" the complex machines could fail.

"This may sound sort of odd, but when you see it actually work, you're sort of surprised," he admitted, "which is not to say that we didn't expect it to work, but it's just, you can see so many ways that it can fail and then it works and you're like, 'Wow! It didn't fail!'"

This mission was a test flight and part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, program. NASA provided SpaceX with access to its resources, including facilities, equipment and engineers. The U.S. space agency also provided funding, but only when SpaceX reached set milestones. That meant the government was paying only for results.

NASA invested about $400 million in SpaceX's commercial cargo capabilities.

"It really shows that commercial spaceflight can be successful," Musk said. "I mean, this mission worked for the first time right out of the gate. All phases of the mission were successful. And it was done, obviously, in close partnership with NASA, but in a different way, and it shows that that different way works and we should reinforce that."

Video of the SpaceX Dragon Capsule leaving ISS

NASA also awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract to resupply cargo to the space station at least 12 times. That first resupply mission could come in September.

NASA officials say one of the goals of commercial partnerships is to develop a safe, reliable and cost-effective space transportation system, while also stimulating a new industry.

Some critics of commercial partnerships denounced NASA for having to rely on private companies - or Russia - for access to the space station. NASA says that it cannot afford to focus on low-Earth orbit transportation while also developing the next generation of spacecraft that could go to asteroids or Mars.

Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002. A decade later, on May 22, the company's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Soon after launch, NASA chief Charlie Bolden praised the NASA-SpaceX partnership and recalled NASA's revolutionary missions.

"We are now back on the brink of a new future, a future that stands on the shoulders of Mercury, and Gemini, Apollo, and Shuttle. A future that embraces the innovation the private sector brings to the table, and a future that opens up the skies to endless possibilities," Bolden said.

SpaceX chief Elon Musk says the Dragon mission to the space station appears to have excited the American public, which, in turn, excites him. He is also excited to enhance Dragon so that it can carry people into space, possibly within the next three years.