HAWTHORNE (CBS/AP) — The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft is back on Earth.
The capsule left the International Space Station on Thursday morning and splashed down into the Pacific around 8:45 a.m., about 560 miles west of Baja California.
Thursday’s dramatic arrival of the world’s first commercial cargo carrier capped a test mission 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 it hit the water.
“Splashdown successful!!” SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, said via Twitter from the company’s headquarters.
Last week, SpaceX became the first private company to send a cargo ship to the International Space Station. And Thursday, it became the only supplier to return major items.
The unmanned Dragon capsule is returning nearly 1,400 pounds of old space station equipment and some science samples, a little more than it took up. Because it is a test flight, NASA did not want to load it with anything valuable.
The retro bell-shaped capsule was set to parachute down in the style of NASA’s old Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. A Dragon has returned from orbit once before, on a solo shakedown mission in December 2010.
NASA lost the capability of getting things back when its space shuttles were retired last year. The space agency has turned to American private business to take over cargo runs and, eventually, astronaut ferry flights. Several companies are in the running for the human missions, with SpaceX in the lead given the success of this latest cargo shipment.
SpaceX’s near-term objective is to help stockpile the space station, joining Russia, Europe and Japan in resupply duties. In three or four more years, however, the company run by the billionaire who co-founded PayPal, Elon Musk, hopes to be launching station astronauts.
It is the cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s strategy for NASA: turning over orbital flights to private business so the space agency can concentrate on destinations farther afield, like asteroids and Mars. Several U.S. companies are vying for the opportunity.
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