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SpaceX ends space station supply mission with a splashdown

Published: Monday, Oct. 29, 2012 9:41 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — LOS ANGELES — SpaceX’s Dragon space capsule survived a fiery re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down about 250 miles west of the Southern California coast Sunday, concluding NASA’s first contracted cargo mission to the International Space Station.

The three-week undertaking, carried out by the Hawthorne, Calif., company officially known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., was capped off at 12:22 p.m. Pacific time when the cone-shaped capsule hit the water. Shortly after, ships moved in and fished the spacecraft out.

The Dragon capsule delivered 882 pounds of supplies to the space station this month and returned with 1,673 pounds of cargo that included damaged equipment, scientific experiments and hundreds of astronaut blood and urine samples to be analyzed by NASA officials.

“Literally and figuratively there’s a piece of us on that spacecraft going home to Earth,” said NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams when the capsule was released from the space station around 6:25 a.m. Sunday.

The mission was SpaceX’s first of 12 such cargo missions under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. It was the first test of NASA’s plan to outsource resupply missions to commercial companies now that the U.S. space shuttle fleet has been retired.

“With a big splash in the Pacific Ocean today, we are reminded American ingenuity is alive and well and keeping our great nation at the cutting edge of innovation and technology development,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.

“Just a little over one year after we retired the space shuttle, we have completed the first cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. Not with a government owned and operated system, but rather with one built by a private firm.”

The mission wasn’t flawless. One of the nine engines on SpaceX’s massive Falcon 9 rocket experienced a problem and shut down shortly after launch Oct 7. Because of the glitch, a satellite that the rocket was carrying didn’t reach proper orbit, but the NASA resupply mission went on as planned and the Dragon capsule connected with the space station Oct. 10.

On Sunday, after the capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, the three main parachutes billowed open about five minutes before splashdown. The orange-and-white-striped parachutes, each 116 feet in diameter, slowed the craft’s descent to 16 to 18 feet per second.

The craft bobbed in the water until a 90-foot boat equipped with a crane, a 90-foot crew boat for telemetry operations and two 25-foot rigid-hull inflatable boats made the recovery. The capsule is set to arrive at the Port of Long Beach, in the Los Angeles area, but it was unclear when that would occur.

“This historic mission signifies the restoration of America’s ability to deliver and return critical space station cargo,” SpaceX founder and Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a statement. “The reliability of SpaceX’s technology and the strength of our partnership with NASA provide a strong foundation for future missions and achievements to come.”

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