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31 May 2012 18:49
Dragon is the first privately owned spacecraft to reach the International Space Station. (AFP)
Riding beneath three parachutes, the bell-shaped capsule ended a nine-day spaceflight with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean about 900km west of Baja California at 11:42am EDT (3:42pm GMT).
Dragon, built and flown by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, was the first privately owned spacecraft to reach the $100-billion International Space Station, which flies about 386km above Earth.
“It’s been an extremely successful joint mission,” said Nasa mission commentator Josh Byerly.
The US has been without its own transportation to the station, a project of 15 nations, since its space shuttles were retired last year.
Rather than build and operate a government-owned replacement, Nasa is investing in companies such as SpaceX, with the aim of buying rides for its cargo - and eventually astronauts - on commercial vehicles, a far cheaper alternative.
The successful trial run is expected to clear SpaceX to begin working off its 12-flight, $1.6-billion Nasa contract to fly cargo to the station.
A second commercial freighter, built by Orbital Sciences Corp, is expected to debut this year. Orbital also has a contract to deliver space station cargo valued at $1.9-billion.
In Thursday’s operation, astronauts detached the Dragon capsule from its berthing port on the station’s Harmony connecting node at 4:07am EDT (8:07am GMT) using the station’s 17.7 metre robotic crane.
The space craft then soared around the planet at 28 164km/h.
European, Japanese and Russian cargo ships now flying to the station only make one-way trips, leaving Russian Soyuz space craft, which are used to transport crew and have little room for cargo, as the only vehicles now flying that return to Earth.
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