The Dragon capsule, owned by US company SpaceX, made a splash-landing in the Pacific Ocean marking a successful end to the first mission by a commercial company to resupply the International Space Station.
The unmanned supply ship scored a bull’s-eye with its arrival, splashing down into the ocean about 500 miles (800 kilometres) off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. A fleet of recovery ships quickly moved in to pull the capsule aboard a barge for towing to Los Angeles.
It was the first time since the shuttles stopped flying last summer that NASA got back a big load from the space station, in this case more than half a ton of experiments and equipment.
Thursday’s dramatic arrival of the world’s first commercial cargo carrier capped a nine-day test flight that was virtually flawless, beginning with the May 22 launch aboard the SpaceX company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral and continuing through the space station docking three days later and the departure a scant six hours before hitting the water.
SpaceX or more properly Space Exploration Technologies Corp. plans to hustle off a few returning items while still at sea to demonstrate to NASA a fast 48-hour turnaround. That capability would be needed for future missions bearing vital experiments.
The capsule returned nearly 1,400 pounds (635 kilograms) of old space station equipment and some science samples, a little more than it took up. Because it was a test flight, NASA did not want to load it with anything valuable. It carried up mostly food.
This was only the second time a Dragon has returned from orbit. In December 2010, SpaceX conducted a solo-flying shakedown cruise. Like the Dragon before it, this capsule will likely become a travelling exhibit.
The Commercial Spaceflight Federation considers the Dragon’s success a critical stepping stone. “It’s a seminal moment for the U.S. as a nation, and indeed for the world,” said its chairman, Eric Anderson.