The first privately developed ship to travel to the International Space Station returned home on Thursday, completing a pioneering mission for commercial firms seeking a major role in space travel.
The bell-shaped SpaceX Dragon capsule ended a nine-day spaceflight and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean about 900km west of Baja California.
Dragon — built and flown by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX — returned home with a load of cargo from the US$100 billion space station, where it spent the past six days.
“It really couldn’t have gone better,” SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk said.
The US has been without its own transportation to the station since its space shuttles were retired last year.
Rather than build and operate a government-owned replacement, NASA is investing in companies such as SpaceX, with the aim of buying rides for its cargo — and eventually astronauts — on commercial vehicles.
“This really shows that commercial spaceflight can be successful,” Musk said.
The test flight will likely clear SpaceX to begin working on its 12-flight, US$1.6 billion NASA contract to fly cargo to the station.
A second commercial freighter, built by Orbital Sciences Corp, is expected to debut this year. Orbital has a similar contract valued at US$1.9 billion to deliver space station cargo.
In Thursday’s operation, astronauts used one of the station’s robotic cranes to detach the Dragon capsule from its berthing port and it was released about 90 minutes later to begin its trip back home.