SpaceX Dragon Completes Historic Flight

Capsule splashes down in the Pacific after nine-day ISS mission.

SpaceX Dragon

SpaceX Dragon

The Dragon capsule approaches the International Space Station.NASA

The first privately built spacecraft to travel to the International Space Station returned home on Thursday after successfully completing a historic mission that proved commercial firms can indeed take over duties that until now have been reserved for large governmental space agencies.

Descending beneath three giant red-and-white parachutes, the SpaceX Dragon capsule ended its nine-day journey by splashing down in the Pacific Ocean about 550 miles west of Baja California at 1542 GMT. Built and flown by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX, the Dragon capsule returned home carrying a load of cargo from the space station, where it docked for six days.

“It really couldn’t have gone better,” Musk was quoted as saying afterward. “I’m just overwhelmed with joy.”

It’s hard to judge where the achievement ranks among space-flight firsts, but NASA was obviously pleased with the results. Rather than build and operate a government-owned replacement for its retired space shuttles, NASA is investing in companies such as SpaceX as a more cost-effective way of sending cargo – and eventually astronauts – into space on commercial freighters.

A recovery ship operated by American Marine Corp. of Los Angeles scooped up the Dragon capsule on Thursday and began the process of transporting it back to the Port of Los Angeles. Dragon will be taken to the SpaceX processing center in McGregor, Texas, where it will be unloaded and inspected. About 1,300 pounds of gear brought back aboard Dragon will be handed over to NASA.

The successful test flight allows SpaceX to begin work on a 12-flight, $1.6 billion NASA contract to fly cargo to the station.

A second commercial spacecraft, built by Orbital Sciences Corp, is expected to make its debut later this year. Orbital has a similar contract valued at $1.9 billion to deliver cargo to the space station.