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SpaceX Dragon capsule will soon be earthbound again

The SpaceX Dragon capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station. Now, it heads back to earth. 

By Matthew Shaer / May 30, 2012

In this photo provided by NASA, the SpaceX Dragon capsule is shown docking at the International Space Station. Soon, Dragon will head back down to Earth.

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The SpaceX Dragon capsule became the first commercial vessel in history to dock with the International Space Station last Thursday. Now, after approximately a week in orbit, the Dragon will return to earth. According to reps for SpaceX, a private company headquartered in California, the Dragon will detach from the International Space Station this Thursday morning and land a few hours later somewhere in the Pacific Ocean

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Of course, navigating the capsule – and its 1,367 pounds of new cargo – to a safe landing won't be easy. But asked about the re-entry to the earth's atmosphere, John Couluris, mission manager for SpaceX, expressed confidence. "Only a few countries have done this before, so we're not taking this lightly at all," Couluris said at a news conference. 

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The schedule, Space.com reports, should go something like this: At 5:35 in the morning, eastern time, Dragon will detach from the ISS, with a little assistance from the station's robotic arm. Five hours later, the Dragon engines will engage, and the capsule will exit orbit and start to plummet back to earth. Splashdown – a few hundred miles off the coast of Los Angeles – is set for 11:44 a.m. EDT.  

The entire Dragon mission, of course, is a kind of dry run for a series of planned SpaceX cargo flights to and from the ISS. SpaceX seemed to pass the test with flying colors. "In my 20 years with NASA, rarely did things go that smoothly," Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former space station commander, told the Washington Post. "And they never go that smoothly the very first time."

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