SpaceX Dragon Capsule On Its Way Back To Earth
May 31, 2012

SpaceX Dragon Capsule On Its Way Back To Earth

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Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) can add another gold star to its report card after its Dragon cargo vessel successfully undocked from the International Space Station early Thursday, now ready for its return journey back to Earth after spending a week attached to the orbiting lab.

The Dragon capsule was released by Expedition 31 Flight Engineers Andre Kuipers and Joe Acaba using the Canadarm2 robotic arm. Using the arm, the two lab members demated Dragon from the Earth-facing Harmony node at 4:07 a.m. on May 31.

“Dragon is free from the International Space Station,” a NASA TV spokesman announced at 5:49 a.m. “An extremely successful joint mission between the space station and Dragon... is coming to a close now.”

After the ISS team successfully demated the Dragon capsule, SpaceX´s Hawthorne, California-based team executed two small and one large thruster burn to maneuver the craft away from the station, marking the start of about 5 hours of orbital operations preparing it for its reentry burn scheduled for 10:51 a.m. The capsule should make a Pacific splashdown off the California coast at around 11:44 a.m.

Coverage of the reentry and splashdown procedure will be shown on NASA TV beginning at 10:15 a.m.

In a statement, NASA said Dragon will come streaking back to Earth “like a burning comet,” but will be protected by a sophisticated heat shield keeping the core unit from harm. When it approaches sea-fall, powerful thrusters will guide it to its landing spot, it added.

The capsule is scheduled to make the ocean landing roughly 490 nautical miles southwest of Los Angeles, where vessels are on standby to recover the craft once it makes touchdown. Once recovered, the craft will be transported to Texas so that the cargo it is returning from the ISS can be unloaded for NASA.

SpaceX made history last Friday when it became the first private company to launch a spacecraft to the ISS. The mission has been hailed by US officials as a sign of a new era in the space industry -- privatized space flight.

Of course, all this depends on if the Dragon capsule makes a successful reentry. If it does prove successful, Dragon will be the only cargo capsule capable of return shipments to Earth, as the cargo vessels operated by other countries are destroyed after making their deliveries to the ISS, said NASA.

SpaceX´s Dragon capsule on its inaugural flight to the ISS delivered more than a thousand pounds of non-critical cargo. It was cleared on Tuesday by the station´s Mission Management Team for unberthing. Before successfully demating the capsule, the ISS crew packed it with cargo, including experiment hardware and alloy samples processed in microgravity from the Materials Science Research Rack. Because the mission was a test flight, NASA did not want to load it with anything of great value, just in case a successful reentry failed.

NASA lost the capability to bring cargo back to Earth when it retired its Space Shuttle fleet last year. And while it is currently paying Russia upwards of $65 million per seat to ferry American astronauts to the ISS, it is looking toward American private business to take over cargo missions and, eventually, manned missions. SpaceX, being on top of the heap, is among several companies vying to make that happen.

Former PayPal front man Elon Musk, billionaire founder of SpaceX, said he expects to ferry astronauts aboard his Dragon capsule within four years. Until then, he will continue to focus on delivering payloads to the ISS.

The next Dragon supply mission is scheduled for September. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is already on standby at Cape Canaveral, Florida awaiting that launch.