Dragon Splashes Down, Ending Successful Commercial Space Demo
The SpaceX Dragon mission splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off the southern California coast on Thursday, bringing a successful conclusion to a nine-day test flight. The voyage marked the first U.S.commercial re-supply mission to the six-person International Space Station.
With the splashdown shortly before 12 p.m., EDT, SpaceX joined the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency as the only organizations capable of sending a spacecraft to the space station.
However, SpaceX is currently alone among the international lineup in its ability to also return significant amounts of hardware from the station to Earth, a capability the Hawthorne, Calif., based company plans to leverage into a crew transport service.
SpaceX flew under NASA’s six-year-old Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, an initiative started to foster private sector crew and cargo transportation services to replace the space shuttle. Since the shuttle’s retirement in mid-2011, NASA has relied on Russia to carry astronauts to and from the space station.
“Congratulations to the teams at SpaceX and NASA who worked hard to make this first commercial mission to the International Space Station an overwhelming success,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “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.”
The Dragon launched May 22 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,Fla. Three days later, the unpiloted capsule rendezvoused with the space station. Astronauts aboard the orbiting science lab “captured” Dragon with the station’s Canadarm 2 robot arm and berthed it to the U. S. Harmony module.
Station crew members Don Pettit, Andre Kuipers and Joe Acaba then quickly off loaded a 1,000 pound cargo of food, clothing, computer parts and student experiments.
The supplies were quickly replaced with about 1,400 pounds of unneeded space station hardware and space suit gear.
Dragon, again in the clutches of Canadarm2, was unberthed from the space station early Thursday. After three orbits of the Earth, the vessel was commanded by SpaceX to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
The Dragon, suspended under three parachutes, splashed down within a mile of its target – about 560 miles southwest of Los Angeles, said Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and chief engineer.
SpaceX recovery teams prepared to hoist the capsule aboard a barge and head for the Port of Los Angeles.
“All phases of the mission were successful,” said Musk, endorsing the capabilities of U.S. commercial space services. “Obviously, it was done in close partnership with NASA but in a different way. That different way works, and we should re-inforce that. It makes sense for there to be more resources applied in this direction. When you have something that works, you should follow through.”
Alan Lindemoyer, NASA’s COTS program manager agreed.
“This vehilce performed solidly,” said Lindemoyer. “I would say quite confidently that we are looking at a reliable space transporation system here. I’m sure it will serve the International Space Station very well.”
With the test mission at an end, SpaceX is primed to begin a series of 12 regularly scheduled cargo missions to the station later this year.
Orbital Sciences Corp., NASA’s second COTS partner, is closing in on a similar test mission later this year. Orbital Sciences could begin regular cargo missions next spring.
Meanwhile, NASA is in the process of selecting companies to partner with it for the the development of commercial crew transportation services. SpaceX is one of four companies currenty working with the space agency.
Congress, however, has challenged the President’s budget request to pursue the strategy.
“NASA and Congress should build on this success by robustly funding a competitive commercial crew program that will reduce our dependence on aging Russian infrastructure, ensure the success of the spaces station and keep high-tech jobs here in America,” said Mike Lopez-Alegria, president of the 51 member Commercial Spaceflight Federation.