December 9, 2010 — SpaceX became the first commercial company in history to re-enter a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit on Wednesday.
The Falcon 9 lofted the Dragon capsule into orbit at 10:43 a.m. EST lifting off from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, a few miles south of the space shuttle launch pads. The Dragon spacecraft orbited the Earth at speeds greater than 17,000 miles per hour, reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, and landed in the Pacific Ocean shortly after 2 p.m. EST. It marked the first time a commercial company has recovered a spacecraft from orbit.
This marks the first time a commercial company has successfully recovered a spacecraft reentering from low-Earth orbit. It is a feat performed by only six nations or government agencies: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, and the European Space Agency.
It is also the first flight under NASA’s COTS program to develop commercial supply services to the International Space Station. After the Space Shuttle retires, SpaceX will fly at least 12 missions to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Resupply Services contract for NASA. The Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft were designed to one day carry astronauts; both the COTS and CRS missions will yield valuable flight experience toward this goal.
With the success of the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon mission still fresh, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the flight "has really been better than I expected. It's actually almost too good."
"There's so much that can go wrong and it all went right," Musk said. "I'm sort of in semi-shock."
CNET reported that based on the results of the first test flight, Musk said he plans to lobby NASA to combine elements of the second and third missions and to send the next Dragon directly to the International Space Station next summer.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told CBS News he would rely on agency engineers and managers in the COTS program to make that assessment, saying "what our folks have to do is sit down, take a look at results from this test, and see how do we interpret what we see and how do we transfer that into comfort that a different-configured vehicle" will perform as required.
But Musk said he is confident Dragon will be up to the task. Looking further down the road, he said the Dragon capsule can easily be modified to carry astronauts to and from the space station within two or three years and that with a superior heat shield, it will rival or exceed the capabilities planned for NASA's deep-space Orion capsule.
SpaceX hopes to begin actual cargo delivery flights to the orbiting space station next November.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a new space station cargo delivery module, blasts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the first of three planned NASA-sponsored test flights. Photo credit: Spaceflight Now/Justin Ray
The Dragon cargo capsule floats toward splashdown after a problem-free re-entry. Photo credit: SpaceX
The Dragon cargo craft floating in the Pacific Ocean after splashdown following a successful two-orbit test flight. Photo credit: SpaceX