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As Dragon capsule splashes down, SpaceX begins to convert skeptics (+video)

SpaceX completed a historic demonstration mission to the space station when its Dragon capsule splashed down safely into the Pacific Thursday. Next up, the real thing. 

By Staff writer / May 31, 2012

The space station's robotic arm releases the SpaceX Dragon capsule Thursday morning.

NASA/AP

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The first commercially owned and operated cargo craft to rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station ended its historic nine-day demonstration mission with a perfect spashdown in the Pacific Ocean Thursday morning local time.

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SpaceX Dragon capsule, the first commercially owned and operated cargo craft, splashed down safely into the Pacific on Thursday.

Throughout its travels, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation's (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo craft carried more than cargo to and from space station. The flight also carried the aspirations of a new generation of aerospace companies hoping to expand humanity's access to space.

In many ways, the ambitious mission – though just a demonstration – represented a high-profile test of NASA's new direction. The agency in effect is turning over the keys to low-Earth orbit to the private sector. Under Geroge W. Bush, NASA moved in that direction for cargo. Under President Obama, it has expanded the goal to include humans as well.

In each case, NASA is to become a paying customer for transportation services to and from the space station rather than acting as owner and operator of the spacecraft. Meanwhile, the agency is turning its human-spaceflight attention to sending astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit.

The move has been greeted with a great deal of skepticism among some in Congress as well as the space-advocacy community.

But even before Dragon splashed down, the mission's success garnered one new convert.

In an opinion column that appeared May 27 in the Orlando Sentinel, former astronaut and space shuttle commander Mark Kelly noted his initial resistance to the Obama administration's cancellation of NASA's Constellation program, which aimed to replace the shuttle with two rockets – one for crews and light cargo duties, the other for heavy lifting and travel beyond low-Earth Orbit.

“I worried about what it would mean for NASA's overall mission, and what it would do to the brilliant and patriotic men and women who work there,” Mr. Kelly wrote. “But I'm impressed with how far SpaceX has come in 17 months.... The president made a tough, bold decision – and I now believe he was right.”

For now, SpaceX and NASA are savoring the success.

Dragon left the station shortly before 6 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time after station flight engineers Joe Acaba and Don Petitt used the space station's robotic arm to detach Dragon and gingerly position it about 30 feet below the orbiting outpost. At 10:51, it fired its motors in a “deorbit burn” designed to slow the craft by about 200 miles an hour – enough for gravity to exert a stronger tug to begin the craft's descent.

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