CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Triumphant from start to finish, the SpaceX Dragon capsule parachuted into the Pacific on Thursday to conclude the first private delivery to the International Space Station and inaugurate NASA’s new approach to exploration.
“Welcome home, baby,” said SpaceX’s elated chief, Elon Musk. The old-fashioned splashdown was “like seeing your kid come home,” he said.
He said he was a bit surprised to hit such a grand slam.
“You can see so many ways that it could fail and it works and you’re like, ‘Wow, OK, it didn’t fail,’ ” Musk said, laughing, from his company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. “I think anyone who’s been involved in the design of a really complicated machine can sympathize with what I’m saying.”
The goal for SpaceX will be to repeat the success on future flights, he told reporters.
The unmanned supply ship scored a bull’s-eye with its arrival, splashing down into the ocean about 500 miles off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. A fleet of recovery ships quickly moved in to pull the capsule aboard a barge.
It was the first time since the shuttles stopped flying last summer that NASA got back a big load from the space station, in this case more than half a ton of experiments and equipment.
Thursday’s dramatic arrival of the world’s first commercial cargo carrier capped a nine-day test flight that was virtually flawless.
The returning bell-shaped Dragon resembled NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft of the 1960s and 1970s as its three red-and-white striped parachutes opened. Yet it represents the future for American space travel now that the shuttles are gone.
Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s commercial crew and cargo program, was emotional as he turned to Musk and assured him that NASA was now his customer and that resupply services were about to unfold on a regular basis.
“You have turned those hopes into a reality,” Lindenmoyer said.
Noted Musk: “It really shows that commercial spaceflight can be successful. I mean, this mission worked first time right out the gate.”
Musk, the billionaire behind PayPal and Tesla Motors, aims to launch the next supply mission in September under a steady contract with NASA, and insists astronauts can be riding Dragons to and from the space station in as little as three or four years.
President Barack Obama is leading this charge to commercial spaceflight. 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.