Musk: "Welcome Home, Baby" as Dragon Mission Ends

Musk: "Welcome Home, Baby" as Dragon Mission Ends

As Elon Musk’s Dragon spacecraft successfully splashed down in the Pacific Ocean this morning, he was thinking “welcome home, baby” as the mission came to a picture perfect ending.

International Space Station (ISS) astronauts using the robotic Canadarm2 detached Dragon from the ISS Harmony module at 4:05 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).   They released Dragon from Canadarm2 at 5:49 am EDT, a few minutes later than planned.  The spacecraft then performed a series of engine firings that put it on course for landing in the Pacific Ocean about 490 nautical miles southwest of Los Angeles.  It landed at 27 degrees North latitude, 120 degrees West longitude two minutes ahead of schedule at 11:42 am ET. 


Photo credit:  SpaceX:

During a post-landing news conference, Musk said the difference in landing times was due to the wind.   Dragon uses two drogue chutes and then three main chutes to slow its landing speed.  Musk emphasized his plans for future versions of Dragon to return to land instead of water, using propulsive landing systems.  He also stressed that this version of Dragon is capable of taking crews to and from the ISS, although launch abort systems and additional successful launches are needed before offering such services.   If someone had stowed away on Dragon, though, that person would have been OK, he said.  He hopes the success of this mission lends credence to the commercial crew program that has been struggling to win support in Congress. 

In response to a reporter’s question about what he was thinking as Dragon floated in the ocean, he said his thoughts were “welcome home, baby. …. I feel really great, like seeing your kid come home.”

Musk and NASA Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Manager Alan Lindenmoyer were clearly delighted that the mission went so smoothly.  Lindenmoyer said that two objectives still need to be met — for NASA to see the cargo that was returned from the ISS and for that cargo to be delivered to the agency — but he anticipates that SpaceX will be given the go ahead to begin routine Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) to the ISS very soon.

Although many media reports are crediting the Obama Administration for the commercial cargo program, it actually began under the George W. Bush Administration and then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin.  Griffin initiated the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program in 2006 as part of planning for the post-shuttle era.   COTS included a section (COTS-D) about the possibility of using commercial companies to launch people as well, but the concept ran into obstacles

In February 2010, however, President Obama embraced it wholeheartedly in NASA’s FY2011 budget request that revealed his decision that NASA would no longer launch people to low Earth orbit (LEO) after the final shuttle flight.  Instead, the country would rely on the commercial sector, with substantial financial support from the government, to develop commercial crew as well as commercial cargo systems.  That decision, coupled with his cancellation of President Bush’s Constellation program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 and someday send them to Mars, sparked a furor in Congress and started years of debate that is still ongoing.

The Dragon flight that ended today, however, certainly gives a boost to commercial cargo.   Questions may remain about the business aspects — how much the government will have to pay for these services — which raises the issue of when Orbital Sciences Corp. will be ready to compete with SpaceX.   Competition is envisioned as a way to keep prices down.  Orbital’s Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft have not been launched yet, but NASA is hopeful they will be later this year.

Even though these are called “commercial” missions, a significant amount of taxpayer money is involved.  NASA spent about $800 million helping SpaceX and Orbital develop their commercial cargo systems.   In 2008, it contracted for 12 cargo Commercial Resupply Services missions from SpaceX and eight from Orbital.  A memo prepared by staff of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in May 2011 showed that NASA will spend $5.1 billion for ISS cargo services between FY2011 and FY2016.   Still, the government is expected to save money overall because the companies invested their own capital in system development, although the amount is not known publicly.

Lindenmoyer said today that NASA will need cargo services to the ISS through at least 2020 and he believes these systems will be useful for achieving other human space exploration goals.  “We must have strong partnerships” with the commercial industry, he said, “and I know there are opportunities that will fit well with this.”

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