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A space-age first: A commercial craft returns from low-Earth orbit

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Game-changing launch makes history
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • SpaceX's Falcon 9 had a brief but possibly historic flight
  • NASA official cites "historic significance of today's achievement by SpaceX"
  • If tests continue to go well, SpaceX could be flying cargo by next year, CEO says

(CNN) -- The first commercial spacecraft to return from a low-Earth orbit splashed into the Pacific Ocean on Wednesday about 500 miles off the coast of Southern California.

The Dragon, a craft developed by the company SpaceX, was concluding a brief but possibly historic flight for the infant commercial space travel industry.

The vehicle hit the water shortly after 2 p.m. ET, a little more than three hours after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida atop a Falcon 9 rocket.

Before splashing down, the Dragon orbited earth at more than 17,000 mph.

Only six nations or government agencies have recovered a spacecraft from a low orbit: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India and the European Space Agency.

Wednesday's landing was also the first flight under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. The program aims to develop commercial supply services to the international space station.

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NASA Administrator Charles Bolden praised the mission.

"These new explorers are to spaceflight what Lindbergh was to commercial aviation," he said Wednesday. "While rocket launches from the Cape are considered a common occurrence, the historic significance of today's achievement by SpaceX should not be lost."

Bolden said the mission reflected a new generation of commercial launch systems that would support the international space station and that could eventually carry astronauts into orbit.

It also coincides with the scaling back of some publicly funded space programs. NASA is set to retire its shuttle fleet in 2011.

President Barack Obama's administration would like to see whether private companies can do the fleet's job cheaper and more efficiently.

"This successful demonstration flight is an important milestone in meeting the objectives outlined by President Obama and Congress, and shows how government and industry can leverage expertise and resources to foster a new and vibrant space economy," Bolden said of Wednesday's flight.

In July, a test launch of the Falcon 9 rocket was "essentially a bulls-eye," SpaceX officials said after the rocket successfully pushed past Earth's atmosphere and deposited a mock-up of its Dragon space capsule in orbit.

NASA has been flying shuttles in low Earth orbit for nearly 30 years and going to and from the space station for more than a decade.

NASA has selected SpaceX and another company, Orbital Sciences, to each develop an orbital vehicle that could be used when the United States no longer has its own way to get to the space station. In the meantime, the United States will be renting space from the Russians aboard their Soyuz spacecraft.

The competition is rabid. SpaceX is the first company to reach the launch pad. By this summer, it had spent almost $400 million to get there. SpaceX currently holds a $1.6 billion contract from NASA to transport cargo, but not people, into space.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, said in July that if all goes well after a series of test flights, SpaceX will be ready to begin flying cargo to the space station next year.

Musk says it could begin ferrying astronauts to the space station within three years.

"We want to see a future where we are exploring the stars, where we're going to other planets, where we're doing the great things that we read about in science fiction and in the movies," he said in July.

Other entrepreneurs in the emerging commercial space travel business say flights will no longer be confined to astronauts. Spaceport America, a commercial launch facility in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2011.

The company's main tenant, Virgin Galactic, hopes to launch short tourist excursions into space in the near future.

CNN's Michael Martinez and Rich Phillips contributed to this report.

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