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Return of the Dragon: Commercial craft back home

Posted: October 28, 2012

A commercial capsule built by SpaceX descended from orbit Sunday with a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, bringing back nearly one ton of precious experiment samples and other gear from the International Space Station.

Dragon and one of its three main parachutes in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: SpaceX
The 14-foot-tall, 12-foot-diameter Dragon spaceship splashed down several hundred miles west of Baja California at 3:22 p.m. EDT (1922 GMT) under the canopy of three 116-foot parachutes.

A SpaceX recovery team retrieved the capsule and lifted it on the deck of a 100-foot barge for the journey to Long Beach, Calif.

Technicians will enter the capsule to fetch refrigerated medical samples, including vials of blood and urine, and other sensitive payloads for rapid shipment to laboratories.

The rest of the cargo, which totals about 1,673 pounds, will be unloaded once the Dragon capsule reaches SpaceX's test facility in McGregor, Texas.

The return to Earth came about six hours after the Dragon was released from the grasp of the space station's robotic arm.

The flight was the first of 12 resupply missions under a $1.6 billion contract between SpaceX and NASA, as the space agency turns to commercial cargo services following the retirement of the space shuttle.

"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," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a written statement. "Not with a government-owned and operated system, but rather with one built by a private firm - an American company that is creating jobs and helping keep the U.S. the world leader in space as we transition to the next exciting chapter in exploration. Congratulations to SpaceX and the NASA team that supported them and made this historic mission possible."

Dragon was hoisted on the deck of a recovery barge soon after splashdown. Credit: SpaceX
The Dragon was slated to carry 384 syringes of urine and 112 tubes of blood collected since July 2011 from astronauts flying on the space station, according to Scott Smith, a nutritionist at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"Literally and figuratively, there is a piece of us on that spacecraft going home to Earth," said Sunita Williams, commander of the space station, as Dragon departed the complex.

The samples were packed inside powered freezers or refrigerated bags stuffed with bricks of ice. Researchers will analyze the blood and urine to study how the human body responds to exercise and nutrition in space.

"The ability to return frozen samples is a first for this flight and will be tremendously beneficial to the station's research community," NASA said in a statement. "Not since the space shuttle have NASA and its international partners been able to return considerable amounts of research and samples for analysis."

Read more about the importance of Dragon's capability to return cargo to Earth.

The Dragon spacecraft is currently the only vehicle able to bring back significant cargo from the space station. Russia's crew-carrying Soyuz capsule has limited room for payloads, and Russian, European and Japanese logistics freighters are designed to burn up on re-entry and remove trash from the outpost.

The three-week mission began Oct. 7 with liftoff on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from Florida. The launch successfully placed Dragon on course for the space station, but an engine failure led to the demise of a secondary communications payload for Orbcomm Inc., a machine-to-machine data communications firm.

Engineers from NASA and SpaceX are investigating the engine anomaly before proceeding with the next Falcon 9 launch, which was set for January.

Michael Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager, said the launch could be delayed with little impact to operations of the orbiting complex.