Month-Long ISS Mission Ends Successfully For SpaceX's Dragon With South Pacific Splashdown
May 19, 2014

Month-Long ISS Mission Ends Successfully For SpaceX’s Dragon With South Pacific Splashdown

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

After spending 28 days in space docked at the International Space Station, Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) CRS-3 mission comes to an end after the Dragon capsule splashes down in the Pacific Ocean.

Loaded with more than 3,500 pounds of NASA cargo, Dragon made splashdown at 3:05 p.m. EDT on Sunday, landing about 300 miles west of Baja California. Among the returned goods are several science experiments that will help researchers better understand the physics of microgravity on humans and other organisms.

The Dragon capsule was set free from the station Sunday morning at 9:26 a.m. by Expedition 40 Commander Steven Swanson using the station’s big robot arm while orbiting at 260 miles over the South Pacific, according to the Associated Press. Less than six hours later, Dragon returned home.

“Welcome home, Dragon!” SpaceX said via Twitter.

"Thanks to everybody who worked this Dragon mission. It went very well," Swanson radioed to flight directors at NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston after Dragon left the station's orbit.

“Very nice to have a vehicle that can take your science, equipment and maybe someday even humans back to Earth,” Swanson told Mission Control.

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is the only supply ship capable of returning ISS cargo back to Earth. All others, including Russia’s Progress resupply ships, burn up on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. The CRS-3 mission is the fourth Dragon capsule to bring back supplies from the orbiting lab.

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After splashing down in the South Pacific, the Dragon capsule was retrieved by a boat and towed to a port near Los Angeles, where it will be prepared for a return journey to SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas test facility for processing. Some cargo, including research samples collected aboard the ISS, will be removed in California and returned to NASA within 48 hours.

"The space station is our springboard to deep space and the science samples returned to Earth are critical to improving our knowledge of how space affects humans who live and work there for long durations," William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in a NASA statement. "Now that Dragon has returned, scientists can complete their analyses, so we can see how results may impact future human space exploration or provide direct benefits to people on Earth."

The CRS-3 mission is the third of 12 contracted space station cargo delivery missions for SpaceX, a NASA contract worth $1.6 billion.

SpaceX is also vying for the right to ferry astronauts to and from the space station, releasing NASA’s reliance on Russia, which charges the American space agency in excess of $51 million per seat for a ride to the ISS. If either of the three competitors – SpaceX, Boeing, or Sierra Nevada Corp – win a manned mission contract, it will mark the return of astronauts being launched from American soil, which ended in 2011 when NASA retired the Space Shuttle fleet.

For its own part, SpaceX is looking at making manned spaceflight a reality by 2017.