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 for towing to Los Angeles.
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, beginning with the May 22 launch aboard the SpaceX company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral and continuing through the space station docking three days later and the departure a scant six hours before hitting the water.
The returning bell-shaped Dragon resembled NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft of the 1960s and 1970s as its three parachutes opened. Yet it represents the future for American space travel now that the shuttles are gone.
“This successful splashdown and the many other achievements of this mission herald a new era in U.S. commercial spaceflight,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.