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NASA chief visits the Dragon's lair

Bill Ingalls / NASA

SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, makes remarks at the microphone while NASA Administrator Charles Bolden sizes up the company's Dragon capsule on Wednesday at the SpaceX rocket test facility in McGregor, Texas. Wednesday's gathering marked the handover of the Dragon's cargo to NASA after last month's historic commercial mission to the International Space Station.


In the wake of a history-making commercial space mission, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, met up in Texas today for a close-up look at the company's recently returned Dragon space capsule and the official handover of more than a half-ton of cargo that came back to Earth on the craft. Musk also got in a little Texas-style politicking on the side.

The SpaceX Dragon's trip to the International Space Station last month marked the first time a privately built craft made an orbital stopover. The Dragon is currently the only type of spaceship on the planet capable of bringing significant amounts of cargo back from the station — up to 3 tons' worth. This time around, it returned 1,367 pounds (621 kilograms) of non-critical cargo, including scientific experiments as well as equipment and spacewalk gear that was no longer needed.

The handover at SpaceX's rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas, meant that the space agency and the 10-year-old company could check off the last major milestone on their list for the demonstration mission. And that, in turn, opens the way for SpaceX to start ferrying cargo to the station on a regular basis under the terms of a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. The first of 12 missions is tentatively planned for September.


Today's meeting gave Bolden and Musk an opportunity to thank the more than 150 SpaceX employees working at the McGregor facility — and get a good look at the Dragon. The Associated Press quoted Musk as saying the craft looked "almost untouched," while Bolden said the capsule was "beaten up" during re-entry.

"The Dragon capsule is a tangible example of the new era of exploration unfolding right now," Bolden was quoted as saying in a NASA report about the Texas meet-up. "Commercial space is becoming a reality as SpaceX looks ahead to future missions to the space station and other destinations. All of NASA's partners in the commercial crew and cargo programs continue to meet milestones designing the next generation of innovative U.S. spacecraft destined for low Earth orbit. In addition, NASA centers across the country are making exciting progress on the vehicles that will take astronauts to farther destinations like an asteroid and Mars. I congratulate Elon Musk and the SpaceX team again for this historic milestone."

Bill Ingalls / NASA

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, left, congratulates SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk in front of the Dragon capsule during Wednesday's meeting at the SpaceX facility in McGregor, Texas.

Bill Ingalls / NASA

Packages representing part of the 1,367 pounds of cargo that was carried from the International Space Station to Earth aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft returned to Earth from the space station are seen in a clean room at the SpaceX rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas, on Wednesday. The cargo was transferred to NASA on Wednesday and will be brought to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for further processing.

Musk similarly expressed his thanks to the space agency and to SpaceX's employees — and also referred to the company's plans to build a new launch site in South Texas. SpaceX is using its current pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida primarily for NASA resupply missions. Another pad that's under construction at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California may eventually take on military launches. The third launch site, in contrast, would be devoted exclusively to commercial launches.

In the past, Musk has said that he was considering several locales around the country, but this morning he told the crowd in McGregor that "the south coast of Texas is the lead candidate for that third launch site."

"I'm actually flying to meet with the governor later today and a number of people on the Texas Legislature side to talk about that, as well as any potential questions in the future about flying astronauts, if we’re successful in winning future NASA business in that regard," Musk said.

SpaceX and three other companies — Blue Origin, the Boeing Co. and Sierra Nevada Corp. — are currently receiving millions of dollars from NASA to support the development of spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to the station. In SpaceX's case, that would involve building and testing a launch escape system for the Dragon craft. Musk has said that the first tests of such a thruster system could begin this year, and that astronauts could conceivably fly on the Dragon as early as 2015. NASA's projections, however, lean more toward the 2017 time frame.

During the next phase of the commercial crew development program, NASA has indicated that it will provide significant support for two spaceship teams, plus a smaller backup grant. This compromise plan, which I like to think of as a "Two and a Half Spacemen," was worked out with Rep. Frank Wolf, the Virginia Republican who chairs the House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations subcommittee. In light of SpaceX's success so far, the company is virtually a shoo-in to win continued support.

This afternoon, Musk and Texas Gov. Rick Perry reviewed the status of the South Texas spaceport project, which is now in the midst of a federal environmental review. Texas state officials have said they'd consider all of their options for supporting the project, including economic incentives. The one-on-one went well, judging by Perry's Twitter update: "Great meeting with SpaceX's Elon Musk — a true space pioneer!"

In a statement, Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said Texas would be "a natural fit" for SpaceX's future launch facility.

After the talks with the politicians, Musk is due to meet up again with Bolden on Thursday at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. They'll take a look at another scorched Dragon — the one that flew the first NASA demonstration mission in December 2010 — as well as the prototype Dragon being designed for crew flights. And they'll probably also face a cheering crowd of hundreds of SpaceX employees, similar to this one.

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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 and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.