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Dragon splashdown ends SpaceX's historic mission

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
May 31, 2012, 23:00 UTC

Sen—SpaceX's Dragon capsule splashed down in the Pacific yesterday marking the end of the historic first commercial mission to the International Space Station.

The unmanned spacecraft parachuted to a watery landing, a few hundred miles west of Baja California, Mexico, that was reminiscent of the descents of NASA's pioneering missions of the 1960s.

Nearby boats immediately sped towards the spot to retrieve the Dragon and return it to land near Los Angeles, to be prepared for a return journey to SpaceX's test facility in McGregor, Texas, for processing.

Dragon's return to Earth began hours earlier when astronaut Don Pettit released it from the ISS's robotic arm, the Canadarm2, at 9.49 UT. The craft fired its thrusters three times to distance itself from the orbiting outpost before another ten-minute burn sent it towards its descent through the atmosphere.

Its flight home, carrying experiments and unwanted items, took just under six hours with the capsule hitting the ocean at 15.42 UT. The craft's mission began on May 22 when it was launched into space by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Dragon's mission, the second demonstration flight for the spacecraft under a 2006 Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA, was a triumph for SpaceX.

Previously only the US, Russia, Japan and ESA had sent spacecraft to the ISS. The success of the missions puts SpaceX on course to win lucrative contracts to carry cargo - and eventually astronauts - for the US, taking over from the recently retired space shuttles.

Celebrating afterwards, SpaceX's CEO Elon Musk said his first reaction had been "Welcome home, baby." The mission had been 100 per cent successful and certain aspects had performed better than expected, such as the solar panels which kept batteries fully topped up. He added that the spacecraft could have carried astronauts - any stowaway would have survived the flight.

Musk added: "If it wasn't for wind drag, we could land Dragon with such accuracy that we could put it in someone's back yard."

Dragon on ship

Dragon pictured on the recovery vessel. Credit: SpaceX

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden congratulated SpaceX, calling the mission "an overwhelming success". He added: "This successful splashdown and the many other achievements of this mission herald a new era in U.S. commercial spaceflight.

"American innovation and inspiration have once again shown their great strength in the design and operation of a new generation of vehicles to carry cargo to our laboratory in space.

"Now more than ever we're counting on the inventiveness of American companies and American workers to make the International Space Station and other low Earth orbit destinations accessible to any and all who have dreams of space travel."

• Scaled Composites, the company building Virgin Galactic's space launch system, has been given a permit to begin testing rocket launches, it announced yesterday. The Federal Aviation Administration has authorised the company to begin rocket-powered test flights of its SpaceShip two from carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo.

George Whitesides, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic, said: "This important milestone enables our team to progress to the rocket-powered phase of test flight, bringing us a major step closer to bringing our customers to space."