Enter the Dragon: SpaceX Dragon completes a near-flawless mission

I’m playing some catch-up this morning and I wanted to lead off with a round of applause to SpaceX and the silky-smooth first mission of the Dragon. The unmanned Dragon spacecraft was designed to answer NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Its mission is to haul stuff into orbit and return stuff back home.

Dragon’s launch was delayed – like so many space launches before it – but when it finally lit and left the ground, the execution of the mission was so flawless they made it look virtually boring. After performing a close fly-by of the International Space Station, the SpaceX team guided Dragon to a rendezvous, allowing the ISS astronauts to hook the robotic arm of the station onto the spacecraft and bring it to a docking point. After offloading the materiel brought up on the launch and loading on some experiment results for the return trip, they unhooked Dragon and let it go. Dragon successfully re-entered the atmosphere and splashed down in the Pacific, à la Apollo.

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft splashed down near California at 8:42 local time this morning, capping an almost flawless mission that went so smoothly that it was difficult to recognize its intricacy and incredible degree of difficulty.

At about 4:07am ET Thursday morning, Don Pettit used Station’s robotic arm to separate the spacecraft from its berth and released it about 40 minutes later. Dragon eased itself away using three quick departure burns, quickly falling below the Station’s orbit.

This spectacular success marks the start of a new era in space exploration, one that relies on private enterprise and the entrepeneurial innovation that comes with it to press on. “To boldly go,” one might say. SpaceX deserves the applause and the accolades and I look forward to hearing more about this wonderful program. Below is a video shot by NASA aircraft of the Dragon descending to the water on the main chutes.