NASA and SpaceX chiefs shook their heads with disbelief and joy on Wednesday after a perfect launch into orbit and back of the company’s Dragon capsule, a historic first for the future of space travel.
Never before has a private enterprise attempted to launch its own spacecraft to orbit the Earth and splash back down intact, and SpaceX pulled off the operation perfectly, NASA and company officials said.
The demonstration launch invigorated the US space agency and boosted confidence in the prospect of using commercial vendors to carry astronauts into space and to supply the International Space Station.
“I am sort of in semi-shock. I wish I could be more articulate at moments like this,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said.
“It blows my mind. It is hard to be articulate with a blown mind,” Musk told a NASA press conference.
“This has really been better than I expected,” he added. “If there had been people sitting in the Dragon capsule today, they would have had a very nice ride.”
The Dragon spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida atop the massive Falcon 9 rocket at 3:43pm GMT.
The bullet-shaped capsule entered orbit about 10 minutes later, then circled the Earth twice before re-entering the atmosphere from low orbit, and splash-landed into the Pacific Ocean at 7:04pm GMT.
“The SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft has successfully splashed down in the ocean. Mission success!” NASA tweeted moments after the company confirmed Dragon had made a soft landing in the ocean well west of the Mexican coast.
No one was aboard the Dragon space capsule on this flight, but it has room for seven crew and an ample cargo hold that could supply the International Space Station after NASA closes down its space shuttle program for good next year.
“From all indications it looks like it was 100 percent successful,” said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of the NASA Commercial Crew and Cargo Program.
“It’s really an amazing accomplishment for SpaceX,” he added. “This experiment is working — this public-private partnership has shown to be successful today. Thank you for the early Christmas present.”
The operation aimed to showcase the capsule’s ability to launch and separate from the Falcon 9 rocket, orbit Earth, transmit signals and receive commands, then make it back intact.
Company president Gwynne Shotwell said the water landing was just 52 seconds later than projected and the craft splashed down within 10km of its landing point, and well within the 60km by 20km range.
The next step is for a fly-by of the ISS as part of a five-day mission in which the Dragon will approach the orbiting station within 9.7km.