Slideshow: Pinpoint splashdown ends first visit to space station

May 31, 2012

george.leopold-May 31, 2012

WASHINGTON – The Dragon cargo ship that last week became the first commercial spacecraft to visit the International Space Station floated back to Earth just before noon eastern time on Thursday (May 31), splashing down on target in the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles west of Baja California.

The end of the historic mission came at 11:42 a.m. EDT, according to NASA and spacecraft builder Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX, Hawthorne, Calif.). Navy recovery ships equipped with infrared cameras showed Dragon’s three main parachutes deploy on schedule after space station astronauts released Dragon early Thursday morning. Dragon then performed several thruster burns to slowly move away from the space station. Hours later it performed a 9-minute “de-orbit” burn over the Indian Ocean and jettisoned its “trunk” equipment module, signaling the beginning of the end of successful nine-day mission.

Splashdown was “pretty much right on target,” a NASA spokesman said.

Dragon was docked to the space station for just over five days.

After delivering its cargo of more than 1,000 pounds of nonessential equipment, clothing and food to the space station after docking last week (May 25), Dragon demonstrated a new commercial capability that NASA has lacked since the end of the shuttle program last July: The ability to return cargo to Earth from the space station. SpaceX officials said they expect to deliver scientific experiments to NASA within 48 hours of splashdown. Other supplies will be delivered to the space agency once the spacecraft has been secured at a SpaceX facility in Texas.

The successful end of the first U.S. commercial cargo flight to the space station ushers in a new era of spaceflight that will allow NASA to shift its focus on deep space missions. SpaceX said earlier this week that its next Falcon 9 rocket has been delivered to Cape Canaveral for the next cargo flight to the space station later this year.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk again stressed after Dragon's successful splashdown that he was constantly aware during the mission of what could go wrong with the machine he designed. "When you see it all work, you're surprised," he said at post-mission briefing. The next step for SpaceX will be demonstrating that the "text book flight" can be repeated, Musk added.

What follows is a recap of Dragon’s first flight to the International Space Station.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon cargo ship blasts off from Cape Canaveral on May 22. The first launch attempt was aborted days earlier when computers sensed a faulty valve in one of the Falcon 9's main engines.

The Dragon spacecraft secured on a barge after splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Thursday (May 31). Dargon was first taken to Long Beach, Calif., to unload returning cargo. SpaceX will then transfer the spacecraft to its processing facility in McGregor, Texas, where it will be "safed."

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