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

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.

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.

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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.

By 11:35 the craft had fallen far enough to deploy the first of two sets of parachutes to further slow its descent. A NASA support plane flew in a racetrack pattern around the landing area, using a infrared camera to spot Dragon and its chutes. Low clouds initially prevented the plane from spotting the craft after it reached the surface. But the pilot dropped beneath the cloud deck and provided visual confirmation that a bobbing Dragon had landed.

“Welcome home, baby,” was the reaction the landing evoked from Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder, chief operating officer, and chief designer, he recalled at a post-splashdown press briefing.

“When you've been deeply involved in the design of a complex machine, when you see it operate, you know all the things that can go wrong,” he said. “There are a thousand ways it could fail, so – this may seem sort of odd – when you see it all work, you're sort of surprised.”

The mission was as much a test of coordination between NASA and SpaceX as it was of hardware.

The Falcon 9 launched from a former Titan missile pad SpaceX leases from the US Air Force at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, with liftoff directed by the company's launch-control center there. Flight controllers operated out of the company's mission-control center in Hawthorne, Calif. Today's recovery of the capsule at sea was conducted by a commercial marine-services company operating out of the Port of Los Angeles.

But Mr. Musk readily acknowledged his debt to NASA for technical support during the evolution of the Falcon 9 and Dragon, as well as for services the agency provided during the mission. For instance, NASA provided vital access to its Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System for communications with Dragon. The company also had to coordinate its operations with the space station's mission-control center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. 

In many ways, this cooperation is just as historic as SpaceX's technical successes.

SpaceX anticipates it will take two days for the recovery vessels to return to the Port of Los Angeles with Dragon. NASA will be on hand there to take delivery of some of the roughly 1,400 pounds of cargo that Dragon brought back from the space station. SpaceX will then ship the capsule to the company's facility in McGregor, Texas, for further unloading.

“That will complete the formal objectives of this mission,” says Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's commercial crew and cargo program. 

If those final steps are also deemed a success, NASA appears set to give the company the green light to begin regular cargo service to the station under a 12-mission, $1.6 billion deal it signed with the company.

“I don't think it's going to take very long” for final approval of the first operational flight, says Mr. Lindenmoyer. 

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