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SpaceX Completes First Cargo Mission in Commercial Spaceflight

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., headed by billionaire Elon Musk, completed the first regular cargo mission in commercial spaceflight with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

After detaching from the International Space Station, the company’s unmanned spacecraft parachuted into the water about 250 miles off the coast of southern California at 12:22 p.m. local time yesterday.

The closely held company, known as SpaceX, has a $1.6 billion contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for at least a dozen resupply flights to the station. NASA is relying on Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX and Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. (ORB) to do the work after retiring its shuttle fleet last year.

“This historic mission signifies the restoration of America’s ability to deliver and return critical space station cargo,” Musk said in a statement after the company recovered the craft.

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule was carrying almost 2,000 pounds of supplies, including science experiments and biological samples. It’s the only spacecraft capable of returning a significant amount of cargo from the station.

The company sent four boats to the area to recover the supply ship, including a 100-foot-long vessel with a crane to lift the vehicle onto its deck, SpaceX said.

‘American Ingenuity’

The spacecraft was shipped to a port near Los Angeles, where NASA officials will within days retrieve time-sensitive cargo such as refrigerated blood samples, NASA said. The capsule itself and its remaining supplies will be taken to the company’s McGregor, Texas, facility for processing, the agency said.

“We are reminded American ingenuity is alive and well,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.

The agency plans to begin flying astronauts on private spacecraft in 2017. It currently relies on Russia for rides to space, paying about $63 million per astronaut. NASA wants companies to transport crew and cargo to Earth orbit so it can focus on missions to asteroids and Mars.

SpaceX launched the craft atop a Falcon 9 rocket on Oct. 7 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It docked with the station three days later. The company accomplished a similar feat on May 25 during a test mission, becoming the first to do so. SpaceX’s second regular flight to resupply the space station is planned for Jan. 18.

Orbital plans to test its new Antares (ANT) rocket designed for station missions in December. A test flight to the station has been delayed to the first or second quarter of 2013. The company has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA for eight resupply missions.

Engine Failure

SpaceX is still investigating why one of the rocket’s nine engines suddenly lost pressure and shut down during the Oct. 7 launch.

A team of engineers from SpaceX and NASA will continue to “analyze all data in an effort to determine root cause and will apply those findings to future flights,” the company said in the same statement.

The failure caused the loss of an Orbcomm Inc. (ORBC) satellite that was flying in the rocket as a secondary payload.

The Orbcomm satellite, a prototype for a communications network, was placed in a lower-than-expected orbit because the SpaceX rocket didn’t have enough fuel for a second burn of the upper-stage engine to take it higher and safely out of range of the space station.

As a result, the satellite began to fall and re-entered the atmosphere on Oct. 10, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who analyzed surveillance data from U.S. Strategic Command.

‘Burned Up’

“My inference is that it burned up,” McDowell said in a telephone interview. “From what I can tell, it came down a little west of Vancouver in the northeast Pacific.”

The Fort Lee, New Jersey-based provider of wireless messaging services filed an insurance claim for a “total loss” of the satellite, Orbcomm said in an Oct. 11 statement. The policy’s $10 million limit would largely offset the expected cost of the prototype and associated launch services, it said.

Spokesmen for Orbcomm didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Orbcomm plans to launch more satellites on two Falcon 9 flights in 2013 and 2014.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brendan McGarry in Washington at bmcgarry2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephanie Stoughton at sstoughton@bloomberg.net

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