Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dragon capsule returns to Earth safely; SpaceX NASA contract virtually assured

SpaceX's Dragon capsule has returned to Earth from the International Space Station, splashing down in the ocean about 500 miles west of Baja California, within a mile of its target point. With that, space exploration has entered a new era, as the successfully completed test flight will almost certainly earn the company a go-ahead to enter its $1.6 billion NASA contract for ISS resupply missions.

The mission, to take over a half ton of supplies to the ISS and to return safely to Earth with slightly more in cargo, was seen as the last hurdle for SpaceX. The flight began on May 22 when the Dragon capsule launched from Cape Canaveral atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The mission reached its climax last Friday when astronaut Don Pettit reached out with the station’s robot arm to grab the capsule and pull it into the ISS' docking port. The following day, station crew members entered the Dragon for the first time, noting its "new-car smell."

With the capsule's successful splashdown, SpaceX has become the first private entity to launch a mission to the ISS, dock with the space station, and return successfully to Earth after doing so, reaching "firsts" at each mark.

Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's commercial crew and cargo program noted that there still needs to be some further checking to ensure the full list of criteria for entry into the resupply contract has been met. Still, he was pretty clear in his high-level assessment of the mission: "It is very easy to see that this satisfies, I believe, 100 percent of those criteria."

Founder Elon Musk, who made his riches with PayPal, said that when he saw the first images of the Dragon capsule bobbing up and down in the Pacific Ocean, his reaction was, "Welcome home, baby. It's like seeing your kid come home."

While SpaceX has probably seen its way cleared to full contract fulfillment, another company, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., is currently working on an alternate commercial delivery system. That system hasn't yet gone through flight testing, though it Orbital’s first test flight is scheduled for later this year.

Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract riding on its success.

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