SpaceX's Dragon Capsule Returns Safely To Earth

May 31, 2012
Originally published on May 31, 2012 9:58 pm
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A dragon has come back to Earth. A photo sent out by SpaceX shows the company's bell-shaped spaceship bobbing in the Pacific Ocean. The unmanned capsule looked white and pristine before its cargo delivery trip to the International Space Station. Now, it's gray and charred.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports this mission is over, but SpaceX's trips to the space station are just getting started.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: SpaceX was founded 10 years ago by Elon Musk, who made a fortune building up the Internet company PayPal. This morning, he was at SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California, wearing a black polo shirt and staring at a computer screen, intently watching all the data that Dragon sent back as it plummeted towards Earth.

ELON MUSK: There's not much I could do about it if something was going wrong, but it's - you know, you can't help but watch, no matter what.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then the capsule's three main parachutes opened up.

MUSK: That's the point at which I really felt relieved and knew that the mission was likely to be 100 percent successful.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Musk says, when you spend so much time thinking about things that might go wrong, it's almost a surprise when a spacecraft works.

MUSK: Which is not to say that we didn't expect it to work. It's just you can see so many ways that it could fail and then it works and you're like, wow. OK. It didn't fail.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Every part of this test flight - the launch, docking with the space station, the return trip - went remarkably smoothly. Dragon splashed down pretty much on target hundreds of miles southwest of Los Angeles. SpaceX had arranged for recovery boats to be waiting with about a dozen engineers onboard to pull Dragon out of the water. They'll take it to the port of Los Angeles, then a SpaceX facility in Texas to unload the cargo.

At a press conference, Musk was asked his thoughts on seeing it in the water.

MUSK: Well, I guess, my thoughts are welcome home, baby. That's just what I'm thinking. Yeah. I feel really, really great. It's like seeing your kid come home.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This capsule won't fly again. Musk says maybe it will go on a public tour, but SpaceX plans to send another Dragon to the station later this year if NASA gives the OK. SpaceX has a contract with NASA to do at least a dozen cargo runs to and from the outpost and SpaceX hopes that, in a few years, a modified version of this capsule will carry NASA astronauts.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.