The success of the SpaceX mission to supply the International Space Station is bolstering the fledgling commercial space industry.
"This really is the beginning of a new era in commercial spaceflight," said Alan Lindenmoyer, who manages NASA's commercial space transportation programs. "It's just a super great day for space flight.... It's stimulating the commercial space exploration industry."
The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean this morning, wrapping up a mission to bring more than 1,000 pounds of food, clothing and scientific experiments to the space station. This is the first time that the U.S. has sent a commercially built and launched spacecraft to rendezvous with the orbiter.
For the record, the mission officially lasted nine days, seven hours and 58 minutes.
With the long-running space shuttle fleet now officially retired, NASA is dependent on a young commercial space industry to ferry supplies, and eventually astronauts, back and forth to the space station.
"We're very close to having you supply cargo resupply services to the station on a regular basis now," said Lindenmoyer to Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, during a Thursday afternoon news conference. "You have turned those hopes into a reality."
Lindenmoyer also noted that even though NASA has not yet had a chance to review all of Dragon's mission data, it appears that all of the space agency's criteria were "rock solid."
With that kind of success, he said it shouldn't take NASA long to approve SpaceX for regular cargo service to the space station. He did not offer a specific timeline.
The Dragon cargo spacecraft was undocked from the space station at 4:07 a.m. ET Thursday and the orbiter's robotic arm released it back into its own orbit at 5:49 a.m. It then splashed down at 11:44 a.m. hundreds of miles off Baja California, Mexico.
At the time of the press conference, the capsule had not yet been plucked from the ocean, but retrieval boats had reached it. Musk said that all accounts from the boats noted that Dragon appeared to be in good condition after more than nine days in space.
And Musk added that he is excited and relieved that the mission was such a success.
"When you've been deeply involved in the design of a complex machine, you know all the things that can go wrong," he said. "When I'm looking at the rocket and the spacecraft, I'm looking at a thousand ways it can fail.... It's not to say we didn't expect it to work, but we can see so many ways it can fail, so when it works, you're like, 'Wow.'"
Now that this first mission is behind them, Musk said he's going to focus on competing for a contract to carry astronauts to and from the space station. He's also expecting to fly another cargo mission before the end of the summer.
SpaceX also is working to next year launch a large rocket with twice the thrust of any other rocket in the world, according to Musk.
As for the Dragon cargo capsule, he said the company will make minor adjustments, including improving its automation so fewer technicians are needed in mission control.
"There's really not much to fix. It went very well," he added. "This would be a grand slam. We had more success than we could reasonably have expected."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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