History is made as Dragon splashes down safely in the Pacific!

By Phil Plait | May 31, 2012 10:40 am

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.

Related Posts:

SpaceX Dragon on its way to the ISS!
Dragon is approaching the space station – UPDATED: CAPTURED!
When a Dragon mated the space station
Dragon hunting above, dragon hunting below

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Space
MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, ISS, SpaceX

Comments (42)

  1. donna taylor

    I just can’t stop smiling. What a great day!! Congrats NASA, SpaceXand the great bloggerswho helped get the word out!!

  2. I think this is a great accomplishment no matter how you look at it. However, I really don’t like it when anyone says, “I did it all by myself with no help from anyone.” Obviously a lot of groundwork was laid in the past – even farther back than Newton.

    I didn’t hear SpaceX say that but Dr. Plaitt sort of just said that for them when he stated, “They started from scratch.” No they didn’t – not by a long shot.

  3. GRMM

    What an amazing mission. For all the news given to face-eaters, ‘Amercia’, and poor NBA officiating, it’s nice to see that at least in some of the webs arteries this is getting the attention and credit it deserves. What a triumph… Sure, just a first step, but damn, what an awesome one!

  4. Wouldn’t -120.70° W mean 120.70° E? I get that “degrees west” is usually expressed as a negative number but that would mean specifying both negative and west would cancel out (double negative).

  5. Chet Twarog

    What a super mission. Saw most of it ‘live’. Will be a great mission briefing @1800UT. Congrats to all involved but especially all of the people at SpaceX and visionary Elon Musk!

  6. amstrad

    Dragon did not dock with ISS, it was berthed to ISS. Nit pick, I know, but it makes a difference.

    Of course this by no means takes anything away from the huge accomplishment by SpaceX!

  7. Chris

    Watching this I realized how science fiction kind of ruined this for me. I half expected to see the capsule’s rockets fire and watch it zoom off in seconds. (But of course I know there is no woosh or orchestral music in space) Instead it played out over hours as it detached and was moved to a safe distance then slowly moved away. Part of the time I was wondering if the feed had froze. But still, on the whole it amazing I can sit here from the comfort of my chair and watch something that would have seemed like science fiction a few decades ago. Can’t wait to see what the next few decades bring. Congratulations to all involved.

    @5 amstrand
    What is the difference between docking and berthing?

  8. Björn Lammers

    Great stuff! I’ve been following this mission, even though it partly coincided with my holiday. I guess it’s no coincidence that the announcement of a commercial contract for the Falcon Heavy came just a day or so after the successful docking :-)
    One small thing – “we haven’t seen an ocean splashdown of an American spacecraft since the 1970s!” – well, except for the first Dragon in December 2010 of course!

  9. Robert

    GO SPACEX!!! GO !!!!

  10. amstrad

    @6 Chris

    “Docking specifically refers to the joining or coming together of two separate free-flying space vehicles. Berthing refers to mating operations where an inactive module/vehicle is placed into the mating interface using a robotic arm.”



  11. MNP

    I’m conflicted. Making space accessible to private corporations just extends our bankrupt social models into the stars. On the other hand I don’t see any other way forward.

  12. UmTutSut (Sure, why not?)

    It’s a great start. Commercial space has to keep flying successfully, though. I wonder what the media reaction will be if the next Space-X COTS flight ends up in aquasynchronous orbit (that’s the ocean). Somehow, I doubt it will be, um, measured….

  13. Takesi Akamatsu

    I think there was a major publicity opportunity loss here. We got a lot of fuzzy pictures. Granted, the weather wasn’t the best, but I seriously doubt the general public is going to find the pictures very impressive.

    It would’ve been nice to see some live image feeds from the recovery ships. The images that NASA sent looked like something off an old VHS tape. Why the analog signal?

    I’m hoping to see some better footage than the 80’s style footage.

    Heck they had better footage of Apollo in the 70’s.

  14. Naked Bunny with a Whip

    @Chris #6: According to Wikipedia, it’s berthing if the robotic arm is used to maneuver the craft into position; it’s docking if the craft’s engines are used.

  15. Adam

    @lostwizard #4:

    Since the Earth is a sphere, it is 360 degrees around. +180 and -180 degrees are the same place, both exactly opposite 0 degrees. -180 degrees infers you go west, +180 degrees infers east. Now, -100 degrees W is the same thing as +260 degrees E.

    Or if you want to think of it as a clock, going three hours counter clockwise is not the same as going 3 hours clockwise.

  16. Kelli

    @Adam #15: But what about going NEGATIVE three hours counter-clockwise? Is that not the same as going POSITIVE three hours, clockwise?

  17. @Adam #15: I was not taking issue with the use of positive and negative. I fully understand how the 360 degrees stuff works. What I was taking issue with is using *both* a negative number *and* the “West” tag since adding “West” and negative both mean west of the prime meridian. That is, 100 degrees W is the same as -100 degrees. If I then travel 120 degrees to the east (+120), I am now at either 20 degrees east (or +20) or -20 degrees West (or still +20).

    Also, one of my pet peeves (do not take this as a personal attack. It isn’t.): infer ≠ imply. -180 *implies* you go west. You *infer* from -180 that you go west.

  18. @ MNP

    “Making space accessible to private corporations just extends our bankrupt social models into the stars.”

    How would the old method – bankrupt national governments contracting with private corporations to place cargo in low Earth orbit – be any better?

    SpaceX seems to be prepared to do this sort of thing better, smarter, and cheaper. If they can find a way to make a profit while doing it I say more power to them. That the system’s flexible, resilient, and elegant design has not being hamstrung by congressmen or design bureaus is just a bonus.

  19. Chris B.

    Interesting that it ferried back some cargo. I wonder if the trip home would have been survivable to a human passenger. Dress him or her in a pressure suit and provide a seat to withstand the G forces. What say you all?

  20. Ferris Valyn

    Chris B,

    Given that the vehicle has windows, she is intended to carry humans. I suspect that they try to fly a human style pathflight

  21. Chris B.

    @ Ferris:


  22. Messier Tidy Upper

    Once again – and I’ve been saying this a lot here lately – Congratulations SpaceX, well done! :-)

    I must admit I had my doubts but, yes, I’m officially impressed.

    So when’s the next flight and when do they launch humans?

  23. Ferris Valyn

    Messier Tidy Upper – current plan is the next CRS is either August or September (can’t remember, but I think its September)

    As for launching humans – current schedule is 2015

    And we don’t have to limit that option to just SpaceX (even given how great SpaceX has done this week)

  24. Tom

    Was great to see Dragon make it back home all in one piece for a seemingly perfectly successful mission!

    Anyone have any reasons or theories why this Dragon ended up looking quite the worse for wear after re-entry compared to the last one? Did it come in at a higher speed, or maybe the extra weight of the cargo on board made a difference?

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    @23. Ferris Valyn : Okay, cheers for that. :-)

    Can’t wait til we have humans riding the Dragon – and just seen on the Ausie TV news report on this that :

    1) a stowaway would’ve survived this flight – Elon Musk interview quote.

    (Better be careful saying that, Elon, – might give people ideas! Wonder what the ISS crew would do with any unauthorised guests! 😉 )

    2) Over 40 flights planned /contracted already &

    3) (Near?) future plans include landing on land “like a helicopter” – animation showing retro rocket descent to chopper-pad type thingummy. :-)

  26. The Mutt

    When I was a child, we would all gather in the cafeteria and watch the TV when the astronauts would splash down. We would sit in fear, waiting for the blackout to end. Then those beautiful orange and white parachutes would appear and we would cheer.

    I’m not sure which is better. The space program being so singular and unique that it stopped pop culture, or the fact that space travel has become so common that we don’t even notice it.

  27. Nigel Depledge

    CafeenMan (2) said:

    “They started from scratch.” No they didn’t – not by a long shot.

    You get a better quality of scratch these days.

  28. Nigel Depledge

    Lostwizard (17) said:

    Also, one of my pet peeves (do not take this as a personal attack. It isn’t.): infer ≠ imply. -180 *implies* you go west. You *infer* from -180 that you go west.


  29. It’s only a matter of time until the first mad scientist builds his own rocket and holds the moon hostage.

  30. Keith K

    Having grown up in the Shuttle era, seeing the total portion of such a large vehicle that is ultimately thrown away seems awfully wasteful.

    Still pretty damn cool.

  31. GLuebben

    Keith K,

    SpaceX and Elon Musk, in particular, intend for the first two stages of Falcon 9 to be reuseable. They have not, unfortunately, successfully recovered those portions of their rockets, to date. It is unclear, to me, if they were recovered from the 2012/05/22 launch.

    It would be wonderful to see them achieve that goal in the immediate future. Doing so would make this program all the more impressive.

  32. Anthony Ramriez

    @Keith K

    The original plan was to use parachutes and recover/re-use the first stage.
    SpaceX plans to not just re-use BOTH stages but to also land them propulsively back at the launch pad,

    I don’t know how they are going to do it but I really hope they can. That would be awesome!

  33. Nic

    It does look pretty scorched doesn’t it? Odd given the first one looked pretty pristine post re-entry.
    Perhaps the center of gravity was a bit off (with the return payload) and, if it was rolling, the ablated heat shield dumped its remains on the skin above all over. Don’t ask me, I’m a software engineer!
    What I don’t understand if why there appears (to me certainly) to be a bloody great crack in it.
    Now I am sure this can’t be majorly structural or it would have disintegrated at mach 15 or something. Or it would have sank perhaps.
    I guess we will find out after NASA and SpaceX have their post mission chat..

    I personally hope all is fine, but given the well publicized ‘Mars/Moon’ capable heat shield and how rough it looks this time – well I want to see an explanation. Even something like – ‘bit of a thruster fuel oxidizer mismatch, harmless, but made loads of soot’.

    We will see!

  34. babyET

    @Nic 33
    That’s not a structural crack! Rather it’s the shear path which is designed to tear in the protective thermal insulation when the drogue mortar fires (parachutes).

  35. Tad Ghostal


    The crack is normal, it’s for the parachute lines. The parachutes are packed in the bottom of the capsule to maximize usable space inside, but they’re anchored on top, so they need those grooves to let the lines out.

    And at least some of the difference in scorching is hatch side vs. parachute side. They try to protect the hatch during reentry, so it comes through better. The parachute side of the first Dragon was pretty charred too: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-qQW-hBn8t-E/ThFynE4BdpI/AAAAAAAAUs8/_0ApJmlSUUE/s1600/SPACEX01.jpg

  36. Phil,
    I agree with others that it would be worth your time to clarify your terminology when it comes to ISS rendezvous. To a lot of lay readers it may not matter but you have many technically minded and geeky readers who would be interested in the discrepancy.

    When it comes to ISS, we use the term “dock” to specifically refer to a vehicle that flies into contact at a docking port under its own power. This is how the Space Shuttle, Soyuz, Progress, ATV, and some future vehicles meet up with ISS. It is important ot make this distinction when it comes to SpaceX and HTV (and eventually Orbital) because their method of rendezvous is to fly very close and then become passive so that the ISS can do the tricky part of snagging it with the robot arm (SSRMS, if you prefer). Once the robot arm has grabbed Dragon, it becomes just another “module” to be attached.

    The port where Dragon is “berthed” isn’t even a docking port. It doesn’t have sensors or mechanisms that a vehicle could just fly into. Instead it is one of the “common berthing mechanisms”. In the future if Dragon brings people to ISS, we expect it to fly in for a real docking to one of the PMA (pressurized mating adapters) like the space shuttle.

    – Ben H.
    Mission Control, Texas

  37. Phil, you are wrong when you wrote “And we haven’t seen an ocean splashdown of an American spacecraft since the 1970s!”
    SpaceX did just that in December 2010.

  38. Ben H.

    Good point. Lots of people are forgetting that. But we should probably give them a bit of a pass because there is definitely a lot more significance to this most recent mission where SpaceX was put through the ringer of objectives. Not to mention they actually delivered cargo to the ISS – despite it being a “demo” mission.

    I particularly like that there was a “splashdown” timer on the wall in Mission Control last week. THAT has not happened since Apollo-Soyuz in the ’70s.


    Ben H
    Mission Control, TX

  39. Nic

    @34, @35.

    Thanks guys, I didn’t understand that! I had a long close look at SpaceX’s site after I posted here and realized the ‘crack’ was certainly designed, but I certainly didn’t understand what it was for! Every shot I had seen previously somehow missed that (and I had followed the first COTS flight closely..)

    Thankyou all, always willing to learn – but how did you know that (re the parachutes) – I read space stuff everywhere and hadn’t read that.

    Incidentally – did anyone else catch Elon’s interview on SpaceflightNow re the scaled up Falcon 9? The uprated Merlin engines (1D) I knew about, but Falcon 9.1 (or was it 9 v1.1?) is (ooh my memory) about a 10% stretch following flight 5 I think..


  40. jfb

    Nic @33:

    The COG is offset a bit by design; this creates a small amount of lift during re-entry, allowing for greater control. Not as much as a lifting body like the Shuttle orbiter or the Dream Chaser, obviously, but it’s enough. It does mean that one side gets toastier than the other, but AFAIK that’s just superficial.

    The “bloody great crack” is the channel from which the parachute lines deploy. It’s not a sign of damage. This image shows them a bit more clearly.

    Keith K @ 30:

    I’m old enough to remember the Apollo missions; you think SpaceX is throwing away a lot of rocket, you’d cry at how much rocket was expended for those missions. Unfortunately, re-use of Shuttle components really didn’t bring the launch costs down that much.

    SpaceX has plans to develop “flyback” stages that return for a landing under their own power (see concept video here). They’ve started work on a test vehicle that will fly up 10-12000 ft and then descend under its own power.

    It’s an open issue whether this will be economical. SpaceX admits that this plan will cost them up to 40% of their payload capacity; there may be missions where they’ll have to throw away the first and second stages just to get a payload to orbit. But, even partial reuse would be better than none, if it results in faster turnaround time and reduced cost. I can see the first stage recovery working for the Falcon Heavy; the outer cores will stage lower and slower than the central core.


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