* Capsule parachutes into the Pacific west of Mexico
* It brought back science experiments, old gear
* NASA hired two firms to fly cargo to space station
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. March 26 A Space
Exploration Technologies' Dragon cargo capsule splashed down in
the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday, bringing back science experiments
and gear from the International Space Station.
The spacecraft left the orbital outpost at 6:56 a.m. EDT
(1056 GMT), and parachuted into the ocean about 225 miles (362
km) west of Mexico's Baja California at 12:34 p.m. EDT (1634
"Recovery ship just heard the sonic booms from Dragon
re-entry and has data transmission lock," Elon Musk, founder and
chief executive of the privately held company known as SpaceX,
wrote on Twitter just before splashdown.
A minute later, recovery ship personnel reported seeing
Dragon's parachutes, Musk said.
"Recovery ship has secured Dragon," Musk wrote. "Cargo looks
The ship will take the capsule to the Port of Los Angeles,
near the company's Hawthorne, California, headquarters, a
journey expected to take about 30 hours.
Dragon's return began 252 miles (406 km) above Earth when
astronauts aboard the station used a robotic crane to pluck the
capsule from its berthing port and set it into orbit.
SpaceX flight controllers then stepped in and remotely
commanded Dragon to fire its steering thrusters and begin the
5.5-hour journey home.
"It looks beautiful from here," station flight engineer
Thomas Marshburn radioed to Mission Control in Houston as the
capsule flew away.
"Sad to see the Dragon go. Performed her job beautifully,
heading back to her lair. Wish her all the best for the
splashdown today," Marshburn said.
The Dragon cargo ship reached the station on March 3 with
more than 2,300 pounds (1,043 kg) of science equipment, spare
parts, food and supplies. It was the second of 12 planned cargo
runs for NASA under a $1.6 billion contract. A second freighter,
built and operated by Orbital Sciences Corp, is expected
to debut this year.
The U.S. space agency hired both firms to fill the gap left
by the retirement of its space shuttle fleet in 2011.
Dragon's arrival was delayed a day while SpaceX engineers
grappled with a thruster pod problem that had threatened to
derail the mission.
"I don't want to go through that again. That was hard-core,"
Musk said during a keynote speech at the South by Southwest
conference in Austin, Texas, earlier this month.
Engineers believe the glitch was caused by a blockage in a
pressurization line or a stuck valve. It was cleared and the
capsule made a precision rendezvous with the station with no
problems. An investigation remains under way, said company
spokeswoman Christina Ra.
Dragon returned to Earth with 2,668 (1,210 kg) of cargo,
including a freezer filled with biological samples from the crew
for medical research.
While Russian, European and Japanese freighters also service
the station, only the SpaceX vessel is designed to return cargo
to Earth, a critical transportation link that had been lost with
the retirement of the shuttles.
SpaceX is working to upgrade the Dragon capsule to fly
people as well. A test flight with company astronauts is
targeted for 2016.
In addition to enhancing the Dragon capsules, SpaceX is
working on an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket. Last week, the rocket's
new Merlin engines completed a 28th and final test run,
certifying it for flight, Ra said.
The company plans to debut its upgraded Falcon 9 rocket on a
science satellite-delivery mission for the Canadian Space Agency
That rocket also will be the first flight from SpaceX's new
launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Five
previous Falcon 9 flights have launched from Cape Canaveral Air
Force Station in Florida.
Dragon's return initially was scheduled for Monday, but it
was docked an extra day because of high seas in the Pacific.
Meanwhile, Orbital Sciences Corp, which holds an
eight-flight, $1.9 billion NASA contract for station resupply
flights, plans to test launch its new Antares rocket as early as
April 16 from the commercial Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at
NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule is targeted to make a
demonstration run to the space station later in the year.