CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Triumphant from start to finish, the SpaceX Dragon capsule parachuted into the Pacific on Thursday to conclude the first private delivery to the International Space Station and inaugurate NASA’s new approach to exploration.
“Welcome home, baby,” said SpaceX’s elated chief, Elon Musk, who said the old-fashioned splashdown was “like seeing your kid come home.”
He said he was a bit surprised to hit such a grand slam.
“You can see so many ways that it could fail, and it works and you’re like, ‘Wow, OK, it didn’t fail,’ ” Mr. Musk said, laughing, from his company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.
The unmanned supply ship scored a bull’s-eye with its arrival, splashing down into the ocean about 500 miles off Mexico’s Baja California. A fleet of recovery ships quickly moved in to pull the capsule aboard a barge for towing to Los Angeles.
It was the first time since NASA’s space shuttles stopped flying last summer that the agency got back a big load from the space station, in this case more than half a ton of experiments and equipment.
The dramatic arrival Thursday of the world’s first commercial cargo carrier capped a nine-day test flight that was virtually flawless, beginning with the May 22 launch aboard the SpaceX company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral and continuing through the space station docking three days later and the departure a scant six hours before hitting the water.
The returning bell-shaped Dragon resembled NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft of the 1960s and 1970s, as its three red-and-white striped parachutes opened. Yet it represents the future for American space travel now that the shuttle program has ended.
Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s commercial crew and cargo program, was emotional as he turned to Mr. Musk and assured him that NASA was now his customer and that resupply services were about to unfold on a regular basis.
“You have turned those hopes into a reality,” Mr. Lindenmoyer said.
Mr. Musk, the billionaire behind PayPal and Tesla Motors, aims to launch the next supply mission in September under a steady contract with NASA, and insists astronauts can be riding Dragons to and from the space station in as little as three or four years. The next version of the Dragon, for crews, will land on terra firma with “helicopter precision” from propulsive thrusters, he said. Initial testing is planned for later this year.
NASA astronauts are now forced to hitch rides on Russian rockets from Kazakhstan, an expensive and embarrassing outsourcing, especially after a half-century of manned launches from U.S. soil. It will be up to SpaceX or another U.S. enterprise to pick up the reins.
Virginia-based rival Orbital Sciences Corp. hopes to have its first unmanned test flight by year’s end, launching from Wallops Island in Virginia. It, too, has a NASA contract for cargo runs.