- U.S. companies are "ready to step up to the plate," NASA chief says
- The Dragon splashed down off Baja California on Sunday
- Its return completes the first commercial space cargo mission
- The capsule carried up nearly 900 pounds of cargo and returned with about 1,700
The SpaceX Dragon has splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after a three-week flight to the International Space Station, completing the first commercial cargo mission to Earth's orbit, NASA announced Sunday.
The unmanned capsule came down about 250 miles west of Baja California at 3:22 p.m., the space agency reported. The craft was launched October 7, the first of a dozen flights to the space station planned under a contract with NASA.
The craft carried nearly 900 pounds of supplies to the station and returned with nearly 1,700 pounds of freight, mostly used hardware and scientific research material. The reusable craft has been loaded onto a ship and was carried back to shore Sunday afternoon, SpaceX said.
NASA chose SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the Dragon spacecraft to resupply the space station in 2008. The space agency has retired its fleet of space shuttles and plans to turn much of its focus toward exploring deep into the solar system.
"With today's mission, we've closed the loop and demonstrated that American industry is ready to step up to the plate and meet our needs for transport to low Earth orbit," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement issued after splashdown. "This work will transform our relationship to space, save money and create jobs. America remains the leader in space and technology development."
Another company, Orbital Sciences, is expected to launch its own demonstration flight to the space station within months under a contract with NASA. And SpaceX is one of three aerospace firms now vying for a contract for manned flights into orbit, along with Sierra Nevada and Boeing.
The mission was completed despite the failure of one of the nine engines on the Falcon 9 booster rocket that carried it into orbit. SpaceX said the engine failed 79 seconds after liftoff, but the remaining engines kept the craft headed for the space station as flight computers made the necessary adjustments.
However, a prototype communications satellite that the Falcon 9 carried as a secondary payload did not end up in its designated orbit. The satellite's builder, New Jersey-based Orbcomm, said controllers were able to successfully test the device's systems before it fell out of orbit and plans to launch two more of them aboard SpaceX rockets by 2014.
SpaceX said it was studying flight data with NASA to figure out what happened, "and we will apply those lessons to future flights."