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

By Michael Martinez, CNN
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Game-changing launch makes history
  • NASA official cites "historic significance of today's achievement by SpaceX"
  • The commercial firm SpaceX launches the Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket
  • Hours later, the spacecraft splashes down in the Pacific Ocean off California

Los Angeles (CNN) -- The first commercial spacecraft to return from a low-Earth orbit landed in the Pacific Ocean Wednesday about 500 miles off the coast of southern California.

SpaceX launched the spacecraft, called the Dragon, atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 10:43 a.m. Wednesday. The spacecraft orbited Earth at more than 17,000 mph and then splashed down at 2 p.m. Eastern.

The successful mission marked the first time a commercial firm recovered a spacecraft from a low orbit -- a feat performed by only six nations or government agencies: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India and the European Space Agency.

The landing was also the first flight under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program to develop commercial supply services to the International Space Station.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said he deemed the mission a success.

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

"This is the first in a new generation of commercial launch systems that will help provide vital support to the International Space Station and may one day carry astronauts into orbit. 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.