Re-Enter the Dragon

SpaceX’s Dragon space capsule returned to Earth on Thursday, 10 days after it took off into the wild blue yonder to resupply the International Space Station.

The capsule touched down in the Pacific Ocean at 11:42 a.m. ET a few hundred miles west of Baja California, Mexico.

It will be taken by boat to a port in California near Los Angeles, where it will be prepared for return to SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor, Texas, NASA said.

“The SpaceX launch is a milestone for an industry that is growing by leaps and bounds,” Alex Saltman executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), told TechNewsWorld.

NASA declined to provide further comment.

Splashing Down

The Dragon capsule delivered more than 1,000 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station, NASA said. These included food, clothing and technology. It brought back to Earth science experiments conducted in space in the hope of gaining new insights from the microgravity environment in the station’s laboratories. Dragon also brought back about 1,400 pounds of hardware and cargo no longer needed on the station.

Some of the cargo will be removed at the port and returned to NASA within 48 hours, and the rest will be returned to Texas with the Dragon capsule.

A SpaceX recovery team, reportedly consisting of 16 engineers, technicians and divers together with contractors operating a 185-foot crane-equipped barge and two inflatables, picked the capsule out of the water.

NASA has been plagued by heat shield failures on its shuttles and capsules in the past. However, the Dragon didn’t have this problem. It was protected by SpaceX’s Pica-X heat shield material.

Trust but Verify

On this mission, the Dragon fulfilled two sets of tests laid out for it by NASA as a prelude to the organization’s giving SpaceX a US$1.6 billion contract that would see the company fly at least 12 resupply missions to the ISS.

The tests were to have been conducted on separate flights, but SpaceX lobbied NASA successfully to combine them.

The tests included aborts; absolute and relative GPS demonstrations; and a demonstration of free drift, wherein the Dragon had to stop and float freely in space as it would when grappled by the Canadarm2.

Other tests were de-orbit burn and separation; controlled entry, descent and landing; successful recovery of the Dragon capsule; on-orbit operations approach and departure; operations while attached to the International Space Station; and recovery of outbound cargo from the station.

Over the next few weeks, NASA will evaluate the Dragon capsule’s mission performance. Once that’s done, it will set the target data for SpaceX’s first full cargo mission jointly with the company.

“Perhaps the most important part of the launch is that it has reminded the American people that the Space Shuttle retirement was not the end of America’s story in space,” the CSF’s Saltman said. “America remains a nation of explorers, and NASA and American companies are working together on the next chapter.”

NASA terminated the Space Shuttle program on Aug. 31, 2011.

Turning to the Private Sector

The Dragon’s flights were conducted under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which provides investments to stimulate the commercial space industry in the United States.

Several other companies had tests or other announcements this week, the CSF’s Saltman said.

One is Sierra Nevada, which began test flights for NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program with its Dream Chaser Flight Vehicle in Colorado on Thursday.

On Wednesday, Virgin Galactic announced that its vehicle developer, Northrop Grumman subsidiary Scaled Composites, had been granted an experimental launch permit from the Federal Aviation Administration for two space vehicles.

Earlier this month, Excalibur Almaz announced that it has lunar and deep space mission capability.

“NASA’s commercial programs are set up to purchase unmanned and, soon, manned services to the International Space Station,” Saltman said. Fixed-price contracts for unmanned trips have already been signed and “offer NASA dramatic savings over using the Space Shuttle.”

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