On the tenth day of its historic mission, May 31, the conical Dragon space capsule made splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California. The unmanned vehicle's successful retrieval brought to an end the first ever joint space venture between NASA and a private company. According to Space.com, for SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.) founder Elon Musk, success was is an impetus for pushing ahead to do more missions.
"The point at which the main parachutes opened and all three were working and Dragon was descending normally, that’s the point at which I really felt relieved and knew that the mission was likely to be 100 percent successful," Musk said during the post-splashdown press conference. "I'm just overwhelmed with joy."
He said that when seeing an image of the capsule bobbing in the ocean, he felt as if he was "seeing [his] kid come home."
After a few delays, Space.com noted in a separate report, Dragon was thrust into space atop SpaceX's own Falcon 9 rocket, loaded with food, tools, and clothing for the astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Also aboard were student-designed experiments. On its return, the Dragon was packed with almost 1,400 pounds of completed experiments, crew items, and used materiel. The capsule will be taken to a SpaceX facility in Texas to unload.
Dragon successfully docked with the ISS on May 26, the first private spacecraft to ever hook up with the space station. Upon its reentry, it also made history by being the first automated cargo freighter to not only get to its destination, but to also return. Resupply vehicles from Russia, Japan, and Europe successfully docked but were designed to burn up when reentering the Earth's atmosphere.
But Dragon was designed to make multiple runs. In fact, the ISS trip was its second time in space, having made an orbital run on an earlier test flight.
But this trial mission was one to celebrate, for in it held the potential for so much more. Musk, SpaceX, and NASA weren't only hoping for a successful mission, but a mission that could prove that private companies could build and maintain reliable space vehicles. SpaceX has a contract with NASA for 12 deliveries; a contract worth $1.6 billion. They are also in the running for a contract to ferry astronauts up to the ISS and back.
Musk, a billionaire who became wealthy after he co-founded PayPal, said he hopes to be able to do that in about three years. He noted that the just-completed mission was important in that it improved the chances of humanity becoming a multi-planet species. The success also might help with dealing with Congress.
"I think it really shows that commercial spaceflight can be successful," Musk said at the press conference. "This mission worked for the first time right out of the gate. It was done, obviously, in close partnership with NASA, but in a different way, and it shows that that different way works and we should reinforce that."
Because of the dismal economy when President Obama took office, NASA's budget was placed on a five-year freeze (to last through the 2015 fiscal year). Musk and NASA hope the mission, not to mention other promising developments in the private spaceflight industry, will persuade legislators to appropriate more towards toward space exploration.
(photo credit: NASA)