SpaceX Dragon capsule returns to Earth, safely splashes down in the Pacific Ocean

UPDATE: The unmanned SpaceX Dragon capsule has safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off Baja California, completing the first commercial flight to the International Space Station, controllers announced Thursday.

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The first private capsule to dock at the International Space Station will return to Earth Thursday, nine days after it took off on its historic mission.

The capsule, known as Dragon, was released by the space station's robotic arm at 5:35 a.m. ET. A thruster burn a minute later pushed the spacecraft away from its host, according to SpaceX, the private company that built and operates the Dragon.

On Sunday, Dragon delivered to the space station more than 1,000 pounds of cargo, including food, clothing, computer equipment and supplies for science experiments and has been reloaded with everything from trash to scientific research and experimental samples.

The capsule is scheduled to splash into the Pacific Ocean around 11:44 a.m. ET, several hundred miles west of California, according to NASA.

Dragon was launched May 22 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. NASA collaborated with SpaceX on every part of the mission and gave final authorization for the flight.

Dragon reached the station Friday and was "captured" by the station's robotic arm.

The mission, hailed by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden as a step toward a new future of private innovation in the space industry, comes as government funding of the space program decreases.

It also marked the culmination of six years of preparation to bring commercial flights to the space station after the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet last year, which leaves the United States with no means of independently sending humans into space. NASA relies on the Russian space agency to ferry U.S. astronauts to orbit.

Without the shuttle, the United States also has limited capabilities to send supplies to the station and bring them back. Dragon fills a need in taking significant payload back and forth, International Space Station astronaut Don Pettit said.

In December 2008, NASA announced it had chosen SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft to resupply the International Space Station after the shuttle's retirement. The $1.6 billion contract involves a minimum of 12 flights, with an option to order more missions for additional cost, according to SpaceX.

SpaceX was created by PayPal founder Elon Musk and is one of a few of private companies receiving NASA funds to develop the commercial transport of astronauts into space.

Musk has said the commercial program -- with fixed-price, pay-for-performance contracts -- makes fiscal sense for taxpayers and fosters competition among companies on reliability, capability and cost.

Astronaut Joe Acaba, also aboard the space station, called the mission a great first step in the commercialization of spaceflight, and Pettit agreed.

"Commercial spaceflight will blossom due to its own merits, and doesn't really hinge on one mission," Pettit said. "It will hinge on the viability of launching many missions over a long period of time and being able to provide useful commercial goods and services in the low-earth orbit arena."

SpaceX is now developing a heavy-lift rocket with twice the cargo capability of the space shuttle and hopes to build a spacecraft that could carry a crew to Mars.


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