At 15:42 UTC on May 31, 2012, the SpaceX Dragon capsule came home, splashing down in the Pacific ocean about 800 km (500 miles) southwest of Los Angeles. As I write this, it’s floating in the water and will be picked up via barge in a little while. There’s still much to do, but it’s not too early to declare this mission a big success.
[Artwork courtesy SpaceX]
The splashdown reminded me strongly of the Apollo homecomings. There was live video as the capsule came down, taken in the infrared by chase planes. The three main parachutes could be seen, brightly and broadly striped, just like Apollo’s. And we haven’t seen an ocean splashdown of an American spacecraft since the 1970s!
[UPDATE (19:10 UTC): Battered and a bit burned from re-entry, here's the first picture of Dragon as it floats in the Pacific Ocean waiting to be picked up:
Cooool. Image credit: SpaceX.]
The entire mission lasted about 9 days 8 hours. After launching at 07:44 UTC on May 22, things went nearly flawlessly. The only glitch I can recall is when Dragon was approaching the International Space Station, and the LIDAR — a laser guidance system used during docking — was having a hard time locking onto the docking port. A quick software change fixed that, and Dragon docked with ISS around 14:30 UTC May 25. The astronauts on ISS got busy opening the hatch and unloading the supplies carried from Earth, and reloaded it with waste and equipment to go back — over half a ton of cargo, more than it brought up!
The capsule was undocked during the middle of the night US time on May 31, then pulled away from the ISS by the robotic Canadarm. It backed away from ISS, then burned its rocket motors to change its velocity by about 100 meters/second (roughly 200 mph). This changed the shape of the orbit, dropping the lower part into the Earth’s atmosphere. Before it re-entered, it jettisoned the lower half of the capsule (called the trunk) that had the solar panels attached; that burned up over the Pacific.
A few minutes later, the pressure increased enough to slow Dragon. Once it slowed enough, the parachutes deployed successfully, and it splashed down. For those keeping track at home, the touch-down point was 26.92˚ N by -120.70˚ W.
Why was this mission so important? Because it was the first privately-owned commercial spacecraft to successfully launch, dock with ISS, and come home safely. In the past, all the spacecraft that have done this have either been from public companies or governments. Using what’s been learned about rocketry over the past 60 years, SpaceX has been able to create a rocket essentially from scratch, going from starting the company itself to this mission in only a decade. SpaceX has an approach which makes this process potentially much less expensive than could be done before; right now it costs about $20,000 to launch a single kilogram of material into orbit. SpaceX projects it can reduce that by a factor of ten to $2000/kilo.
What does this mean? The Space Shuttle cost something like $500 million to a billion dollars to launch. If SpaceX can reduce that to $100 million or so, NASA can save hundreds of millions of dollars every time it needs to get something to space. As I have said numerous times, NASA should be in the game of developing new ideas and new technology, and then private companies can come in, make the process leaner and more efficient, and take over the more "routine" functions. As I recently wrote:
I still strongly support NASA, of course; don’t get me wrong. It should still do what it does best: the things private industry can’t, like breaking new ground. That’s what NASA has been doing in space for 50 years, and now that paved way is being taken up by private companies. I think it’s just that combination of government support and private innovation that will get us to the stars.
This is precisely what SpaceX has done with this mission.
So again, my congratulations to NASA and SpaceX for a successful mission! Here’s to the future of spaceflight.