SpaceX Dragon cargo ship splashes down in Pacific Ocean (+video)
The SpaceX Dragon capsule, a privately owned spacecraft, returned to Earth Thursday from the International Space Station
Cape Canaveral, Florida
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The unmanned capsule parachuted into the ocean about 500 miles off Mexico's Baja California, bringing back more than a half-ton of old station equipment. It was the first time since the space shuttles stopped flying last summer that NASA got back a big load from the orbiting lab.
Thursday's dramatic arrival of the world's first commercial cargo carrier capped a test mission that was virtually flawless, beginning with the May 22 launch aboard the SpaceX company's Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral and continuing through the space station docking three days later and the departure a scant six hours before it hit the water.
"Launch, docking, reentry and recovery successful," SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, said in a statement provided by the company. "Welcome home, baby."
The returning bell-shaped Dragon resembled NASA's Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft of the 1960s and 1970s, yet symbolizes the future for American space travel. Musk aims to launch the next supply mission in September under a steady contract with NASA, and says astronauts can be riding Dragons to and from the space station in as little as three or four years.
Musk said in a tweet from the company's Mission Control in Hawthorne, Calif., that the next version of the capsule will land with "helicopter precision."
A fleet of boats was in position and quickly moved in to retrieve the bobbing Dragon.
The SpaceX Dragon represents NASA's future as laid out by President Barack Obama. He wants routine orbital flights turned over to private business so the space agency can work on getting astronauts to asteroids and Mars. Toward that effort, NASA has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in seed money to vying companies.
NASA astronauts are now forced to hitch rides on Russian rockets from Kazakhstan, an extremely expensive and embarrassing outsourcing, especially after a half-century of manned launches from U.S. soil. It will be up to SpaceX or another U.S. enterprise to pick up the reins; several companies are jockeying for first place.
IN PICTURES: SpaceX Falcon and Dragon