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The Dragon’s splashdown in the Pacific, off the Southern California coast, remains on schedule for March 25.

NASA is counting on the commercial sector to supply the space station for the rest of this decade; it’s supposed to keep running until at least 2020. Russia, Europe and Japan are doing their part, periodically launching their own cargo ships. But none of those craft can return items like the Dragon can; they burn up on re-entry.

Russia also is providing rides for astronauts _ the only game in town since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles in 2011.

SpaceX, or more formally Space Exploration Technologies Corp., leads the commercial pack that is working toward launching astronauts in another few years. Musk said he can have people flying on a modified Dragon by 2015.

NASA’s shuttles used to be the main haulers for the space station. At the White House direction, the space agency opted out of the Earth-to-orbit transportation business in order to focus on deep space exploration. Mars is the ultimate destination.

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Online:

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/structure/launch/index.html

SpaceX: http://www.spacex.com/