Friday, 01 June 2012 10:38
June 1, 2012.
After the successful launch last week, the first private spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station splashed down in the Pacific Ocean late in the morning on Thursday.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp., generally known as SpaceX, announced that its Dragon capsule managed to survive reentry, falling flaming through the Earth's atmosphere before landing west of Baja California, Mexico, at 11:42 a.m. EDT.
While Dragon still has to be pulled back to Los Angeles and unloaded before its mission can be truly completed, simply making to the Pacific Ocean in one piece marks a huge success for SpaceX and the space program as a whole.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration retired its long-running shuttle program last summer, effectively grounding the American program. Since then, NASA has relied entirely on other governments' automated freighters to resupply the ISS, while astronauts could only make it up to the station on the Russian Soyuz capsules.
But the biggest problem with this setup, aside from the fact that it relies on foreign programs to keep American astronauts in space, is that none of these automated freighters can actually survive reentry. Instead, astronauts load them with the station's garbage and set them on a course to burn up in the atmosphere.
The Associated Press reports that on its first trial run to the ISS, Dragon was loaded up with around 1,400 pounds of outdated equipment and some samples from experiments, but nothing critical. Still, SpaceX is scrambling to retrieve the capsule to prove they can have it unloaded within 48 hours, so that NASA might consider using it to bring back more important experimental samples.
The most common theme in comments from SpaceX and NASA officials was that Dragon performed shockingly well for its first full run, without any significant problems throughout the mission.
"You can see so many ways that it could fail and it works and you're like, `Wow, OK, it didn't fail,'" SpaceX founder Elon Musk told the AP. "I think anyone who's been involved in the design of a really complicated machine can sympathize with what I'm saying."
As Dragon was preparing to make its way back to Earth, SpaceX announced that it was taking the next big step for private space exploration, with satellite service provider Intelsat signing the first commercial agreement with the company.