— -- NASA's new era of privately funded spacecraft to make deliveries to the International Space Station made a splash Thursday when the SpaceX Dragon capsule successfully came down in the Pacific Ocean.
Its return capped the first private cargo run to the space station.
Astronauts detached the cargo capsule from the station in the early morning with a 58-foot robot arm aboard the orbiting lab. A series of rocket firings lowered the capsule's orbit from 230 miles high, allowing it to re-enter the atmosphere and parachute to an ocean landing at 11:42 a.m. ET, more than 560 miles southwest of Los Angeles.
The re-entry was reminiscent of Mercury and Apollo capsules returning to Earth in the era before the space shuttle, although it relied on three boats, two NASA spotter planes and a barge to retrieve the capsule, instead of the U.S. Navy.
"Welcome home, baby," said SpaceX founder Elon Musk, speaking at a NASA news briefing at the completion of the demonstration mission. "A grand slam, almost more success than we deserve."
After several months of delay before its launch in May, the spacecraft delivered roughly 1,000 pounds of food and equipment to the space station on the mission and returned with 1,455 pounds of used experiments and other cargo. The flawless cargo delivery and return were the first of 12 missions planned for the spacecraft through 2015, as part of a $1.6 billion agreement between SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., and NASA.
"We're looking at a very reliable space system," NASA's Alan Lindenmoyer said. Proposed by former NASA chief Mike Griffin in 2006 during the Bush administration, the private space cargo transport effort has become more central to NASA plans, including ones that envision Dragon capsules for astronaut travel in the next three years. "It is a new way of doing business," Lindenmoyer said.
The spacecraft was launched last week aboard one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The mission was run by SpaceX engineers out of their Hawthorne headquarters, and there was space agency oversight. Berthing of the capsule last Friday followed two days of demonstrations of its maneuvering capabilities and fixing a problem with a laser.
"SpaceX should be justifiably proud of the technical achievement they have succeeded with on this mission," said space analyst Marcia Smith of the Space and Technology Policy Group in Arlington, Va. "Now we will have to see if (this) kind of private-public partnership does save the taxpayers money in the long run."
A second private firm, Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., plans to launch its Cygnus cargo capsule to the space station on a demonstration launch this summer, part of an eight-mission contract with the space agency.
"Much has been made of the commercial side of these partnerships, but taxpayers have contributed around $500 million to the development of these cargo vehicles," Smith said.
For now, the Dragon is the only cargo capsule capable of returning equipment to Earth from the space station, unlike the Russian, European and Japanese ones that burn up on re-entry. SpaceX announced a contract with the company Intelsat on Wednesday to launch a communication satellite into stationary Earth orbit next year with its planned Falcon "Heavy" rocket, the largest space rocket since the Saturn V used to carry astronauts to the moon.
After recovery of the Dragon capsule by divers operating from a barge, the capsule will be returned to a McGregor, Texas, factory for examination and repair. Future Dragon capsules will aim for ground landings using its rockets — "how spacecraft land in (science fiction) movies," Musk said. That capability may also serve for landings on asteroids or the moon.
"That's the way a spacecraft ought to land," he said.