History’s first commercial space mission ended today as SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft returned to Earth. The 21-day flight to the International Space Station (ISS) ended when the unmanned cargo ship splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 12:22 p.m. PDT. The mission, designated CRS-1, is the first of twelve SpaceX is sending to the ISS as part of NASA’s plan to replace the retired Space Shuttle with privately built and operated spacecraft that will one day carry both cargo and crew.
On Saturday, at 11:00 AM PDT, the Mission 33 ISS crew closed Dragon’s hatch and yesterday evening depressurized the vestibule between Dragon and the station. At 3:55 AM PDT the spacecraft was detached from the space station and the crew eased it out to release position with the station’s robotic arm. After a last minute safety inspection, the astronauts released Dragon at 6:29 AM PDT. The spacecraft then executed a series of thruster firings to carry it away from the space station and it began its de-orbit burn at 11:28 AM PDT.
Once the burn was completed, Dragon jettisoned its service module and solar arrays at 11:46 AM PDT before it turned to present its PICA-X heat shield forward as it struck the Earth’s atmosphere. At an altitude of 13,700 meters (45,000 feet), it deployed two drogue parachutes to slow its descent and at 3,000 meters (10,000 feet), it deployed the three main parachutes. Splashdown occurred in the Pacific ocean with a SpaceX recovery ship standing by.
The Dragon capsule was carrying 759 kilograms (1,673 lb) of cargo including frozen blood and urine samples collected from the astronaut crews, but which were stranded on the ISS after the retirement of the Space Shuttle. The spacecraft will be taken ashore in Southern California where time-sensitive cargo will be removed before the capsule is sent to SpaceX’s facility in McGregor, Texas, for removal of the remaining cargo. Dragon will then be refurbished and prepared to fly another mission.
The video below shows a timelapse view of Dragon leaving the ISS.