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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. Several companies are jockeying for first place.

It will take a few days to transport the fresh-from-orbit Dragon by barge to the Port of Los Angeles. From there, it will be trucked to the SpaceX rocket factory in McGregor, Texas, for unloading and inspection. Reports from the scene are that the spacecraft looks “really good,” Musk said, with no major changes needed for future Dragons, just minor tweaks.

SpaceX _ or more properly Space Exploration Technologies Corp. _ plans to hustle off a few returning items while still at sea to demonstrate to NASA a fast 48-hour turnaround. That capability would be needed for future missions bearing vital experiments.

The capsule returned nearly 1,400 pounds of old space station equipment and some science samples, a little more than it took up. Because it was a test flight, NASA did not want to load it with anything valuable. It carried up mostly food.

This was only the second time a Dragon has returned from orbit. In December 2010, SpaceX conducted a solo-flying shakedown cruise. Like the Dragon before it, this capsule will likely become a traveling exhibit.

Russia’s Soyuz capsules for carrying crews also parachute down but on land, deep inside Kazakhstan. All of the government-provided cargo vessels of Russia, Europe and Japan are filled with station garbage and burn up on descent.

NASA lost the capability of getting things back when its shuttles were retired last July.

Rival Orbital Sciences Corp. hopes to have its first unmanned test flight off by year’s end, launching from Wallops Island in Virginia. It, too, has a NASA contract for cargo runs.

The grand prize, though, will involve getting American astronauts flying again from U.S. soil and, in doing so, restore national prestige.

Aboard the space station is a small U.S. flag that soared on the first shuttle mission in 1981 and returned to orbit with the final shuttle crew. It will go to the first private rocket maker to arrive with a U.S.-launched crew.

After that, promises Lindenmoyer, there will be more opportunities for partnering NASA and industry _ perhaps at the moon, Mars or beyond.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation considers the Dragon’s success a critical stepping stone. “It’s a seminal moment for the U.S. as a nation, and indeed for the world,” said its chairman, Eric Anderson.

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Online:

SpaceX: http://www.spacex.com

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