Completes Historic First Commercial Flight To ISS
SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft returned safely to Earth Thursday, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean a few hundred miles off the coast of southern California. The return of the vehicle marks the successful completion of the first commercial mission to supply the ISS. The spacecraft was confirmed to be in the water at 1142 EDT Thursday.
SpaceX said in a news release Wednesday that While Dragon was attached to the space station, astronauts unloaded 1,146 pounds of cargo including food and other crew provisions, student experiments and a laptop that Dragon delivered from Cape Canaveral Florida. They then packed the spacecraft with 1,455 pounds of cargo that will be returned to NASA on Earth including hardware used for experiments, spacewalks and station systems.
Early Thursday, at approximately 0400 EDT, the ISS crew used the space station's robotic arm to pull the spacecraft from the station. Two hours later, the robotic arm released Dragon and the spacecraft began its journey home.
In a carefully timed sequence of events, dual drogue parachutes deployed at 45,000 feet to stabilize and slow the spacecraft. Full deployment of the drogues triggers the release of the main parachutes, each 116 feet in diameter, at about 10,000 feet, with the drogues detaching from the spacecraft. Main parachutes further slowed the spacecraft's descent to approximately 16 to 18 feet per second. SpaceX will use a 185-foot working barge equipped with a crane, an 80-foot crew boat, and two 25-foot rigid hull inflatable boats (RIB) to conduct recovery operations. On board will be approximately a dozen SpaceX engineers and technicians as well as a four-person dive team.
NASA said that the early reports indicated that the Dragon splashed down fairly close to its intended target. In the future, Dragon will use SuperDraco thrusters to land on a landing pad on ground.
This is SpaceX's second demonstration flight under a 2006 Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA to develop the capability to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station. With the first demonstration flight, in December of 2010, Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to orbit the Earth and safely return. During that mission SpaceX conducted similar recovery operations to retrieve Dragon from a water landing in the Pacific. Demonstration missions are conducted to determine potential issues so that they might be addressed; by their very nature, they carry a significant risk. If any aspect of the mission is not successful, SpaceX will learn from the experience and try again. (SpaceX image of Dragon recovery following first orbital mission in 2010)