SpaceX Wraps Up First Contracted Station Resupply Mission

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A commercially operated space capsule laden with 760 kilograms of return cargo from the international space station has been recovered in the Pacific Ocean and is now on its way to the U.S. mainland.

“We expect Dragon at port sometime in the next 24 hours, SpaceX spokeswoman Katherine Nelson said via email Oct. 29. The ship carrying Dragon will dock at San Pedro, Calif., Nelson said.

Some of the items Dragon is carrying have been designated as early return cargo. These items will be removed as soon as the spacecraft reaches land. Dragon, along with the rest of its cargo, will then be trucked to SpaceX’s engine-test facility in McGregor, Texas, for post-flight processing.

Dragon’s return is a milestone in NASA’s effort to turn space station cargo logistics over to private operators. The craft’s splashdown marked the completion of the first mission under Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX’s $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract signed with NASA in 2008. SpaceX has 11 more missions to fly under that contract.

Dragon launched Oct. 7 aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying 400 kilograms of cargo including crew supplies and research hardware. Despite the loss of one of the rocket’s nine first-stage engines 79 seconds after liftoff, Dragon reached the international space station Oct. 10, as planned. However, the engine anomaly, which is still under investigation by a joint NASA-SpaceX team, forced SpaceX to jettison a secondary commercial payload into a lower-than-intended orbit. The payload, an experimental satellite that belonged to Fort Lee, N.J.-based Orbcomm, subsequently fell out of orbit, that company announced Oct. 11.

SpaceX is one of two companies with contracts to fly cargo to the international space station. The other, Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., is now expected to begin routine delivery missions sometime in 2013.

Orbital still has two demonstration flights to complete before it can begin fulfilling its own $1.9 billion delivery contract with NASA. The first of those flights, a test of the company’s Antares medium-lift rocket, without the Cygnus cargo capsule, is supposed to take place this year.