The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft completed its historic mission when it splashed down safely in the Pacific on May 31 at approximately 11:42 a.m. ET. The cargo-carrying spacecraft from Space Exploration Technologies made the splashdown about 560 miles off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula.
The Dragon took around six hours to reach earth from the ISS, starting at 5:49 am ET, after the robotic arm of the space station released the capsule.
SpaceX is the first private business in history to successfully complete a mission of this scale. The Dragon successfully docked with the International Space Station and delivered the cargo. The challenging feat has so far been repeated by only four governments – the U.S., Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency.
The spacecraft was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 22, aboard the Falcon 9 rocket. The first commercial cargo carrier to the space station completed a nine-day test flight without any issues whatsoever. With its successful return to earth, the Dragon capsule marks the beginning of a new era in U.S. commercial space travel.
The freshly arrived spacecraft will be transported to a SpaceX facility in McGregor, Texas, for the final inspection.
The SpaceX Dragon capsule is the only cargo-carrying spacecraft capable of returning to the earth with cargo from the space station. Previous unmanned vehicles could only deliver cargo to the ISS, which upon re-entry would burn up before hitting the ocean. In comparison to the manned spacecraft Soyuz, the Dragon capsule has a large space for cargo to and fro the space station.
NASA’s space shuttles retired last July, leaving no choice but to ferry its astronauts on Russian spacecrafts. It proved quite expensive, given that NASA had so far the capability to launch astronauts from the U.S. soil.
The current flight of the Dragon capsule is the second of three demonstration flights under a 2006 Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement between NASA and SpaceX for developing the capability to carry cargo to and from the ISS.
The commercial spaceflights by private businesses is a part of President Barack Obama’s strategy for NASA. The aim is to let the space agency focus solely on deep space exploration that would include manned spacecrafts to Mars or even landing on asteroids.
Way forward for SpaceX
NASA’s commercial crew and cargo program manager, Alan Lindenmoyer, said at a press conference that it won’t take long to determine that the entire mission was extremely successful.
According to SpaceX CEO and chief designer Elon Musk, plans to launch the next supply mission to ISS in September. Musk also said that, in the coming months, SpaceX will focus on the next version of the Dragon that can carry U.S. astronauts onboard to the space station. The version for astronauts will have the ability to land on terrain with “helicopter precision.” SpaceX insists that manned spaceflights to the ISS will be a possibility in about three to four years.