SpaceX Dragon Capsule Returns to Earth

First commercial spacecraft to fly to International Space Station.

ByABC News
May 31, 2012, 11:51 AM

May 31, 2012 — -- intro: The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, descending under three large parachutes, safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean south of San Diego today, NASA reported, successfully ending the first-ever commercial flight to the International Space Station.

"Splashdown! Welcome home #Dragon!" said SpaceX on its Twitter feed. The landing, monitored at NASA's Mission Control in Houston and SpaceX control in Hawthorne, Calif., took place at 8:42 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time. The ship had unberthed from the space station seven hours earlier and fired its engines this morning to slow itself from orbit.

NASA tweeted too: "@SpaceX #Dragon capsule safely down in Pacific Ocean -- ending first mission by a commercial company to resupply the #ISS."

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, said the mission showed that commercial spaceflight can be successful.

"It was done in partnership with NASA, of course, but in a different way," Musk said. "It showed that the different way works."

NASA said recovery boats, sent by SpaceX, found the conical Dragon capsule so that a barge could pull it out of the water. The small unmanned spacecraft carried extra supplies, experiments and garbage that the space station astronauts had loaded on board.

It was a nine-day flight. The Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station before dawn on May 22, carrying 1,100 pounds of supplies for the station -- and, much more important, the hopes for a new way of doing space travel.

The SpaceX flight was, in many ways, routine. Bringing supplies to the space station is something American space shuttles and Russian Progress capsules started doing when the first components of the station were launched in 1998. American spacecraft have splashed down in the ocean for more than 50 years.

The one major difference, of course, is that SpaceX is a private company. Until now, all flights to the space station have been made by the U.S., Russian or European space agencies. NASA hopes SpaceX and other commercial firms will take over space jobs previously done only by governments.

"This successful splashdown and the many other achievements of this mission herald a new era in U.S. commercial spaceflight," said NASA administrator Charles Bolden from Houston. "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."

Musk is part of a new breed of celestial aspirants -- entrepreneurs who made their fortunes here on Earth, and now look to the skies for new opportunities.

There is a cynical saying sometimes used that you really can make a small fortune in space -- all you have to do is spend a large one. But Musk and his competitors argue that since they are not burdened by government bureaucracy, they can do cheaply what NASA has done expensively.

They say space could be a bit like the old West: Governments sent explorers, such as Columbus or Lewis and Clark, to open the frontier, and then private settlers followed.

Here is a list of some would-be space settlers and their projects:

quicklist: 1category: Millionaire Space Pioneerstitle: Elon Musk, SpaceXurl: text: What do you do if you've conquered the world and you're still young? You look for other worlds to conquer.

Elon Musk, now 40, made his fortune online. He co-founded PayPal, the popular system for sending money by email, in 1999, and sold it to eBay in 2002. The purchase price: $1.5 billion in stock. Musk owned about 12 percent of PayPal at the time.

It was not even his first company. In 1995 he dropped out of Stanford's graduate school to start Zip2, a firm that made software for publishing content on the Internet.

He began SpaceX in 2002, saying he believed humanity's future lay in space. The philosophy of his Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules, he told ABC News, was to keep it simple: "We're building trucks, not sports cars."

Several early launches failed. But in 2010, a SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket became the first liquid-fueled booster to put a satellite in Earth orbit as a private venture.

His principal client is now NASA. SpaceX hopes to carry cargo, and eventually astronauts, to the International Space Station, something NASA has been unable to do since the space shuttles were retired in 16371616 caption: userelated: