SpaceX capsule completes historic mission

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About 563 miles west of Baja California, SpaceX’s Dragon space capsule successfully splashed down after spending nine days in outer space.

When the unmanned cone-shaped capsule hit the water at 8:42 a.m. Pacific time Thursday, it marked the end of a historic mission carried out by the Hawthorne company officially known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. It was the first privately built and operated spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station.

“Welcome home, baby,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, in a news briefing from company headquarters.

After the two spacecraft connected in space May 25, astronauts aboard the space station unloaded half a ton of cargo, water and clothes. The Dragon spent six days attached to the station and was refilled with 1,455 pounds of cargo for the trip back to Earth. The cargo will be delivered to NASA.

Astronauts sent the capsule back in the pre-dawn hours Thursday for a trip that lasted about five hours.

After the capsule reentered Earth’s atmosphere, the three main parachutes billowed open about five minutes before splashdown. The orange-and-white-striped parachutes, each 116 feet in diameter, slowed the spacecraft’s descent to 16 to 18 feet per second.

The craft bobbed in the water until an 80-foot boat, two 25-foot rigid-hull inflatable boats and a 185-foot barge equipped with a crane made the recovery. The capsule is set to arrive Monday at the Port of Long Beach.

Dragon’s mission, which began March 22 when the Falcon 9 rocket it sat atop lifted off in the predawn hours from Cape Canaveral, Fla., is considered the first test of NASA’s plan to outsource space missions to privately funded companies now that the U.S. fleet of space shuttles has been retired.

Next on the launchpad for a shot at the space station is Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., which has a test flight of its commercial rocket set for this year.