SpaceX Dragon Returns Safely to Earth

After completing every objective of its nine-day mission, the first private spacecraft ever to dock with the International Space Station splashed down off the coast of Baja California today. The landing was right on target. The 19-foot-long SpaceX Dragon capsule was quickly recovered to begin its trip back to the SpaceX facility in McGregor, Texas. SpaceX's successful mission sets the stage for private spacecraft operations to take over some routine responsibilities from NASA, potentially saving money and increasing capabilities.

The Dragon launched on May 22 aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to make its historic rendezvous, successfully docking with the space station on May 25. The following day, the crew of ISS Expedition 31 opened the hatch and climbed aboard, reporting that the Dragon's interior "smell[ed] like a brand new car."

The Dragon brought some nonessential cargo to the station, which the crew unloaded and replaced with spent equipment to return to NASA. The agency has made Dragon's full cargo manifest available to read. It includes crew provisions and clothes, racks and storage containers for science experiments, plus some mission hardware, including spacewalk gloves.

After completing all the tests and experiments, Dragon spent its last day at the station yesterday as crew finished loading its 1,455 pounds of cargo to return to Earth. Dragon unberthed from the station's robotic arm at 4:05 a.m. Eastern time today.

Dragon fired its engines to slow down and drop from orbit, then streaked through the sky over the Pacific, deploying its parachutes at 45,000 feet and touching down right on target at 11:42 a.m. Eastern time.

In future missions, Dragon will land on a pad using precision thrusters, rather than the more traditional water landing.

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With the success of this mission, SpaceX begins a series of cargo missions for NASA under a four-year, $1.6 billion contract. If all goes well, private spaceflight companies will take on even more responsibility. The Dragon capsule is designed to accommodate up to seven crew members, and SpaceX plans to begin manned flights within three years.

With private companies like SpaceX handling routine flights, NASA can free up its resources for more ambitious, longer-term missions.

Lead image via SpaceX/AP