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Spaceships will follow Dragon's trail

SpaceX

SpaceX's scorched Dragon capsule sits on its American Marine recovery ship after being fished out of the Pacific Ocean on Thursday.


SpaceX's scorched Dragon cargo capsule is on a ship making its way back to Los Angeles after Thursday's historic descent from orbit.

The California-based company reported that the 14.4-foot-high (4.4-meter-high) spacecraft and its more than 1,300 pounds (620 kilograms) of cargo were in good shape, despite its plunge from the International Space Station. On the way down, the Dragon weathered re-entry temperatures in excess of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,650 degrees Celsius). At a height of 40,000 feet, the Dragon started deploying its parachutes and drifted into the Pacific, about 560 miles west of Baja California. A recovery team got to the craft, towed it to the ship and used a crane to hoist it aboard, as planned.


SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Brost Grantham told me that a few items will be delivered to NASA officials with a 48-hour turnaround, as a demonstration of the procedure for returning time-sensitive cargo from orbit. But the Dragon itself and most of its payload will be taking a slower ride to the port of Los Angeles. Arrival is expected around June 6, depending on weather.

From California, the craft and cargo will be trucked to SpaceX's rocket test facility in MacGregor, Texas, for postflight processing. Then the cargo will be turned over to NASA.

The handover of the Dragon's contents will be the last item to check off on NASA's list of requirements. That should clear the way for a $1.6 billion series of 12 Dragon cargo flights, with the first launch probably scheduled sometime in September.

NASA and SpaceX released a slew of awesome pictures and video documenting the Dragon's return, via SpaceX's Zenfolio gallery as well as NASA's Flickr and YouTube accounts. Here's a selection: 

NASA

SpaceX's Dragon cargo craft begins its descent on Thursday after its release by the International Space Station's Canadarm2 robotic arm, visible at top center.

During the re-entry of SpaceX's Dragon capsule, NASA and the United States Navy flew a P-3 Orion Cast Glance aircraft to capture airborne views of the spacecraft's descent. The aircraft, based at the Navy's VX-30 squadron at the Naval Air Station Point Mugu, Calif., was able to record Dragon's re-entry, parachute chute deployment and the capsule in the water.

NASA / U.S. Navy

A wind-filled parachute pulls the SpaceX Dragon capsule through the water after Thursday's Pacific splashdown.

SpaceX / U.S. Navy

A dive team secures the Dragon spacecraft for towing to its recovery barge.

NASA / U.S. Navy

The Dragon capsule nears American Marine's recovery ship, which is equipped with a crane to take the spacecraft on board.

Eventually, SpaceX is aiming for extensive reusability of its spaceship components, including a first stage that can fly itself back to the launch pad and a "Dragon 2.0" spacecraft that can do propulsive soft landings.

"That's how spaceships land in sci-fi movies," SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, told me during a post-splashdown news conference. "And that's what also enables landing in other parts of the solar system. ... It's the way spacecraft ought to land."

But NASA won't be using this particular Dragon again. The space agency is buying a fresh spaceship for each of the 12 cargo supply missions. Musk speculated that SpaceX might send the scarred spacecraft on "a little tour of the country and show it to people around the country, [to] get students excited about space." In the future, Dragons could be refurbished for return trips to space.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is working to make the Dragon suitable for carrying astronauts as well as cargo. The development of the SuperDraco thruster system is a key part of that plan, because it fits into the propulsive-landing strategy as well as the launch escape system that NASA will require for safe human spaceflight. Musk said the system could go into operation in three years if the development effort goes well, "maybe four or five if we encounter some challenges along the way."

Other spaceship companies are making strides as well, with advice and financial support from NASA. Here's a quick progress report:

Orbital Sciences Corp., like SpaceX, has been receiving hundreds of millions of dollars to support the development of an unmanned cargo resupply system. Orbital is developing a new rocket called the Antares as well as its Cygnus cargo capsule to do the job. Last month, Orbital, Aerojet and NASA oversaw a full-duration hot-fire test of the AJ26 engine that will be used on the Antares. The first test launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia is planned sometime in the next few months, and if all goes according to plan, cargo flights to the space station could begin by early next year under the terms of a $1.9 billion contract.

Blue Origin, the company founded by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, is working on a spacecraft that could carry astronauts to the space station, with United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 rocket to be used as the launch vehicle. On Thursday, Blue Origin reported that it successfully completed a systems requirement review of its orbital Space Vehicle. Blue Origin's president and program manager, Rob Meyerson, said in a statement that the review "paves the way to finalize our Space Vehicle design." Representatives from NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration took part in the review.

The Boeing Co. is developing its CST-100 capsule for NASA's potential use as a taxi for space station astronauts, to be launched by the Atlas 5. The company carried out drop tests in April and May to check the workability of its parachute-plus-airbag landing system. The most recent test involved dropping a CST-100 test vehicle from a helicopter, 14,000 feet above Nevada's Delamar Dry Lake Bed. Boeing's John Mulholland said the test validated the landing system design. Further ground tests of CST-100 components lie ahead, and test flights could begin in 2015-2016, Boeing says.

Video traces a parachute drop test of Boeing's CST-100 space taxi in the Nevada desert.

Sierra Nevada Corp. is developing a mini-shuttle known as the Dream Chaser, to be launched atop an Atlas 5 as a taxi for space station astronauts. This week, Sierra Nevada put the Dream Chaser through its first full-scale, captive-carry flight test. For this test, the space plane was suspended by cables beneath a heavy-lift helicopter. The first free-gliding drop tests are planned for later this year, and Sierra Nevada says the Dream Chaser could be operational by 2016. 

SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing and Sierra Nevada, along with other aerospace players such as ATK, Lockheed Martin and Astrium, are expected to compete for further funding from NASA later this year. Which means it's not likely to be a slow summer in the aerospace business. Has the successful Dragon mission made SpaceX the far-and-away frontrunner, or is the commercial space race up in the air? When will U.S. astronauts be flying once again on U.S.-made spaceships? Watch a panel of space commentators, including yours truly, discuss these and other questions — and feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Watch space commentators discuss the week's developments, including the return of the Dragon from orbit.

Update for 6:55 p.m. June 2: In a Twitter update, SpaceX confirms that it has delivered some cargo items to NASA in an effort to demonstrate 48-hour rush processing after splashdown. You could call this the first commercial express delivery from outer space.

More about the commercial space race:


Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.