Dragon Returns from First Successful Operational Mission
SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft successfully splashed down in the Pacific Ocean this afternoon at 3:22 pm ET, returning scientific experiments and other cargo from the International Space Station (ISS).
That ends the first operational flight for Dragon as part of NASA's commercial cargo program. Designated Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)-1, it is the first of 12 flights NASA has purchased from SpaceX. The mission included a freezer that was needed to return research samples to Earth, and since it was aboard Dragon, it also was used to deliver ice cream to the ISS crew.
SpaceX is still looking into why one of the nine Falcon 9 engines failed during launch on October 7. Although the Dragon mission proceeded successfully, the engine failure doomed another payload the rocket was carrying -- an experimental communications satellite for Orbcomm.
Through the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, NASA provided funding to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to develop their own systems to take cargo to the ISS. The companies also provide some of the funding, which is why it is called a commercial program even though it involves considerable taxpayer money.
SpaceX completed its portion of the COTS program in May with the successful test flight of an earlier Dragon mission that garnered significant press attention. The news value of this mission was somewhat overshadowed by a focus on the upcoming elections and a massive storm about to hit the eastern United States dubbed Frankenstorm.
NASA hopes that Orbital Sciences's Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft will be operational in 2013, though neither has flown yet. Orbital did not become part of the COTS program until much later than SpaceX, replacing a company that failed to meet its milestones.
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