Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s supply ship returned to Earth, completing the first private mission to the International Space Station.
Closely held SpaceX, controlled by billionaire Elon Musk, on May 25 became the first company to dock a craft at the station. The feat was previously accomplished only by the U.S., European, Japanese and Russian governments.
“This really couldn’t have gone better,” Musk said during a press conference after today’s splashdown. His first thought on seeing the vehicle in the water was, “Welcome home, baby,” he said.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration retired its shuttle fleet last year and wants the private sector to take over ferrying supplies and eventually astronauts to the station. SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California, may begin regular resupply missions to the lab in September.
Astronauts released the so-called Dragon capsule from the station’s 60-foot-long robotic arm at 5:49 a.m., according to NASA.
“Dragon smoothly undocked, moved out, released and on its way home,” Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers tweeted from the space station. “Job done!” he wrote in another post.
SpaceX had boats waiting just outside the landing area to recover the vehicle. Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT)’s P-3 Orion aircraft, which perform maritime surveillance, tracked the space vehicle.
The company launched its Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the capsule, in a predawn liftoff on May 22 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. A previously scheduled attempt on May 19 was called off with a half-second left in the countdown because of a faulty engine valve.
The mission, which came almost three years late, was praised by supporters as a breakthrough for commercial spaceflight. The Dragon craft, like the shuttle and unlike others that now service the station, has the ability to return significant amounts of science experiments to Earth.
SpaceX has a contract valued at $1.6 billion for a dozen resupply flights to the station. The work was contingent on successful demonstration of the technology.
Musk has said the company will be ready to launch astronauts within three or four years. If people were aboard Dragon for this mission, “they would have been OK,” he said at today’s briefing.
SpaceX also plans to compete for military business using the Falcon 9 and its Falcon Heavy rocket. The larger Falcon Heavy’s first flight is now planned for 2013 instead of later this year.
Orbital Sciences Corp. (ORB), based in Dulles, Virginia, plans to fly its new Antares rocket in August from a new launch pad near Wallops Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. It’s scheduled to deliver supplies to the station with its Cygnus craft in December as part of a test mission similar to SpaceX’s.
Other companies working with NASA include Chicago-based Boeing Co. (BA); Kent, Washington-based Blue Origin LLC, created by Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN); and Sierra Nevada Corp., based in Sparks, Nevada.
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