A spacecraft built by Hawthorne-based SpaceX splashed down off the California coast Thursday after becoming the first private spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station.
The vehicle -- known as Dragon -- was unberthed from the station at 1:07 a.m. PT, according to NASA. Dragon was then released from the station's Canadarm2 robotic arm at 2:49 a.m. and executed a series of burns and maneuvers to move beyond the station's 656-foot "keep out sphere'' before beginning its journey back to Earth, according to NASA.
SpaceX mission controllers ran the craft through about five hours of orbital maneuvers before performing a "de-orbit burn,'' which brought Dragon back into the Earth's atmosphere.
Three chutes deployed at about 8:38 a.m. to slow the spacecraft's descent. At about 8:44 a.m., word came from mission control that "Dragon is in the water."
The splashdown was hundreds of miles off the coast.
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It will take a few days to transport the capsule by barge to Los Angeles. From there, it will be trucked to the SpaceX rocket factory in Texas for unloading and inspection.
Dragon's mission, which began May 22 with a blast-off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, is part of a first-of-its-kind partnership between NASA and SpaceX to transport cargo to and from the stellar outpost during the post- space shuttle era. Dragon docked with the space station Friday, and astronauts aboard the station spent the past few days unloading 1,014 pounds of cargo carried by the ship during its demonstration flight.
The spacecraft also carried experiments by students from Chaminade College Preparatory School and San Marino High School. The students are experimenting with fermentation and fungi, and beat out hundreds of students nationwide for the opportunity.
SpaceX conducted a test flight in December 2010, when the company became the first commercial firm to send a spacecraft into low-Earth orbit and recover it successfully.
If the Dragon makes a successful return to Earth, SpaceX will begin what is expected to be more than a dozen flights to the station. SpaceX executives said the Dragon craft is also designed to carry astronauts, but only cargo missions are planned for now.
The company's CEO, chief technology officer and co-founder is 40-year- old South African-born engineer and entrepreneur Elon Musk, who also co-founded Tesla Motors, which manufactures all-electric sports cars, and what later became PayPal.
"Launch, docking, reentry and recovery successful,'' Musk said in a statement provided by the company. "Welcome home, baby.''