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Dragon return completes first commercial cargo mission to the space station

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Oct 28, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—SpaceX's Dragon, the world's first privately operated spacecraft to visit the space station, left the orbiting complex Sunday October 28. Its return to Earth marks completion of the first ever commercial resupply mission to the orbiting complex.

Dragon, which had launched on October 7 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a Falcon 9 rocket, berthed with the ISS on October 10. After 18 days at the space station the cargo freighter was loaded with items for its return journey, which included research experiments, hardware and samples of blood and urine. The samples will be examined by scientists researching the effects on the body of long term space travel. Expedition 33 Commander Suni Williams commented "literally and figuratively there's a piece of us on that spacecraft going home to Earth". Although some of the returning biological samples are from the current crew, other samples from earlier expeditions have been stored in the station's freezers, unable to leave the station since the retirement of the space shuttle. The unmanned Dragon is the only spacecraft capable of returning equipment and experiments as all the other regular supply ships are intentionally burnt up on their re-entry to Earth's atmosphere. 

The hatch to the capsule was closed on Saturday October 27. On the morning of October 28 the craft was moved to its release position by the station's robotic arm, Canadarm2. After release from the Harmony node, Dragon fired its thrusters to move away from the ISS before its deorbit burn.

After its descent was slowed down by parachutes, the capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 19.22 GMT to be retrieved by a waiting SpaceX team. The return marks the end of SpaceX's first commercial resupply mission, designated SpaceX CRS-1. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA for up to 12 supply trips to the orbiting complex. NASA boss Charles Bolden said: "Just a little over one year after we retired the Space Shuttle, we have completed the first cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. Not with a government owned and operated system, but rather with one built by a private firm - an American company that is creating jobs and helping keep the U.S. the world leader in space as we transition to the next exciting chapter in exploration. Congratulations to SpaceX and the NASA team that supported them and made this historic mission possible."

NASA video of Dragon's departure from the ISS. Credit: NASA

NASA is using companies to transport cargo to and from the space station, and has also awarded an 8 mission contract to Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital) which is planning to demonstrate its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft over the next few months. The test flights are part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program under which Orbital, like SpaceX before it, must first demonstrate it has a reliable and safe system for launching a cargo ship to the space station. The first flight of Antares is due later this year, to be followed in 2013 by a Cygnus test flight to the ISS.

Dragon is now one of several supply ships which also include Japan's H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV, also known as 'Kounotori'), Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and Russia's Progress spacecraft.

The next ship to dock at the ISS will be the Progress 49 resupply ship which is loaded with 2.5 tonnes of food, propellant and supplies for the Expedition 33 crew aboard the station. Progress 49 is scheduled to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on October 31.