The capsule returned nearly 1,400 pounds of old space station equipment and some science samples, a little more than it took up. Because it was a test flight, NASA did not want to load it with anything valuable. It carried up mostly food.
This was only the second time a Dragon has returned from orbit. In December 2010, SpaceX conducted a solo-flying shakedown cruise. Like the Dragon before it, this capsule will likely become a traveling exhibit.
Russia's Soyuz capsules for carrying crews also parachute down but on land, deep inside Kazakhstan. All of the government-provided cargo vessels of Russia, Europe and Japan are filled with station garbage and burn up on descent.
NASA lost the capability of getting things back when its shuttles were retired last July.
Rival Orbital Sciences Corp. hopes to have its first unmanned test flight off by year's end, launching from Wallops Island in Virginia. It, too, has a NASA contract for cargo runs.
The grand prize, though, will involve getting American astronauts flying again from U.S. soil and, in doing so, restore national prestige.
Aboard the space station is a small U.S. flag that soared on the first shuttle mission in 1981 and returned to orbit with the final shuttle crew. It will go to the first private rocket maker to arrive with a U.S.-launched crew.
After that, promises Lindenmoyer, there will be more opportunities for partnering NASA and industry — perhaps at the moon, Mars or beyond.
The Commercial Spaceflight Federation considers the Dragon's success a critical stepping stone. "It's a seminal moment for the U.S. as a nation, and indeed for the world," said its chairman, Eric Anderson.
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