Space Exploration Technologies Corp., headed by billionaire Elon Musk, completed the first regular cargo mission in commercial spaceflight history with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
After detaching from the International Space Station earlier today, 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.
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. to do the work after retiring its shuttle fleet last year.
SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is 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 launched the craft atop a Falcon 9 rocket on Oct. 7 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It docked with the station three days later. SpaceX’s second flight to resupply the space station is planned for Jan. 18.
The company is still investigating why one of the rocket’s nine engines suddenly lost pressure and shut down during the October flight.
The failure caused the loss of an Orbcomm Inc. satellite that was flying in the rocket as a secondary payload.
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.