SpaceX completed a historic demonstration mission to the space station when its Dragon capsule splashed down safely into the Pacific Thursday. Next up, the real thing.
The first commercially owned and operated cargo craft to rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station ended its historic nine-day demonstration mission with a perfect spashdown in the Pacific Ocean Thursday morning local time.
Throughout its travels, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation's (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo craft carried more than cargo to and from space station. The flight also carried the aspirations of a new generation of aerospace companies hoping to expand humanity's access to space.
In many ways, the ambitious mission – though just a demonstration – represented a high-profile test of NASA's new direction. The agency in effect is turning over the keys to low-Earth orbit to the private sector. Under Geroge W. Bush, NASA moved in that direction for cargo. Under President Obama, it has expanded the goal to include humans as well.
In each case, NASA is to become a paying customer for transportation services to and from the space station rather than acting as owner and operator of the spacecraft. Meanwhile, the agency is turning its human-spaceflight attention to sending astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit.
The move has been greeted with a great deal of skepticism among some in Congress as well as the space-advocacy community.
But even before Dragon splashed down, the mission's success garnered one new convert.
In an opinion column that appeared May 27 in the Orlando Sentinel, former astronaut and space shuttle commander Mark Kelly noted his initial resistance to the Obama administration's cancellation of NASA's Constellation program, which aimed to replace the shuttle with two rockets – one for crews and light cargo duties, the other for heavy lifting and travel beyond low-Earth Orbit.