A fleet of boats was in position and quickly moved in to retrieve the bobbing Dragon.
The SpaceX Dragon represents NASA's future as laid out by President Barack Obama. He wants routine orbital flights turned over to private business so the space agency can work on getting astronauts to asteroids and Mars. Toward that effort, NASA has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in seed money to vying companies.
NASA astronauts are now forced to hitch rides on Russian rockets from Kazakhstan, an extremely expensive and embarrassing outsourcing, especially after a half-century of manned launches from U.S. soil. It will be up to SpaceX or another U.S. enterprise to pick up the reins; several companies are jockeying for first place.
IN PICTURES: SpaceX Falcon and Dragon
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden offered up congratulations to SpaceX.
"This successful splashdown and the many other achievements of this mission herald a new era in U.S. commercial spaceflight," Bolden said in a statement.
As for the Dragon fresh from orbit, it will take a few days to transport it by barge to the Port of Los Angeles. From there, it will be trucked to the SpaceX rocket factory in McGregor, Texas, for unloading and inspection.
SpaceX plans to hustle off a few returning items while still at sea — mostly non-critical science samples — to demonstrate to NASA a fast 48-hour turnaround. That capability would be needed for future missions bearing vital experiments.