SpaceX′s Dragon spacecraft splashes down after trip to ISS | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 11.02.2015
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SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft splashes down after trip to ISS

SpaceX celebrates a smooth landing and another step forward for commercial space travel.

Commercial space flight took another step forward Tuesday (10.02.2015) as the SpaceX Dragon freighter safely returned to earth from the International Space Station (ISS).

The unmanned craft left the ISS at 2:10 p.m. EST (19:10 GMT) and splash-landed into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California just over five hours later. The vehicle was carrying nearly 1,700 kilograms (almost 2 tons) of cargo - including scientific materials, research equipment, 3D printed parts and even a faulty spacesuit. There were no astronauts on board.

The smooth landing was another victory for United States-based commercial space flight company SpaceX and its CEO Elon Musk, who also heads electric car company Tesla Motors. It was the fifth successful roundtrip mission to the ISS performed by the company for NASA.

Landings becoming routine

Currently, the Dragon craft is the only space cargo vessel in the world that is capable of making the return trip back to earth. For scientists and researchers with experiments returning from the ISS onboard, the safe landing was a relief.

The pioneering work of SpaceX appears to be making commercial space travel with private companies viable. Space travel experts in Germany say they only pay passing attention to successful launches and landings now.

"It's becoming more routine for us," said Johannes Weppler, a scientist at the German Aerospace Center (DLR). "We notice it and are happy when things are successful - but it's not that we are anticipating these things," he told DW.

Weppler praised SpaceX, adding that he has high confidence in the quality of the company's work. "They have put on a program that is very impressive and has a lot of potential for the future," Weppler said.

Still a risky buisness

But Weppler acknowledged that there are still risks involved with each launch and landings performed by private space companies. Yesterday's successful mission by SpaceX comes just three months after a spectacular failure by another private US space company, Orbital Sciences.

Last October, an unmanned Antares rocket loaded with supplies bound for the ISS exploded just after takeoff. The company believes the explosion was caused by a faulty engine.

So just how reliable is commercial space travel? NASA has signed a contract with SpaceX for 12 cargo missions to the ISS with the Dragon spacecraft. So far, the first five have operated successfully with only minor problems.

But there are signs that SpaceX might not yet have the full trust of NASA. According to Weppler, although the Dragon crafts are designed to be reusable, NASA still purchases a brand new Dragon for each mission.

"They're not fully convinced that a reused one will be as good as a new one. All the old ones are stored somewhere and waiting for a new launch," said Weppler.

SpaceX driving competition

Currently, NASA doesn't have much of a choice but to trust commercial spaceflight companies: Its own long-running space shuttle program officially ended in 2011.

SpaceX and a handful of other private companies including Orbital Sciences, Boeing and Sierra Nevada have made enormous technological leaps in just the last few years. Competition has even pushed the European Space Agency (ESA) - which dominates space freight with nearly two dozen successful launches of its Ariane rocket - to develop cheaper and mass-producible rockets.

"The problem is that the space industry in Europe is not that diverse," said Weppler. He thinks it's unlikely the DLR or ESA would utilize a commercial outfit. "We do not have so many companies that could be in competition to do this - it won't happen in the near future."

Yet SpaceX does continue to push forward, and has announced plans for future space missions - which include a manned trip to the ISS as soon as 2017. And last December, NASA approved a test flight of SpaceX's first manned spacecraft.

Musk is already tweeting about his next launch, re-scheduled for Wednesday (11.02.2015): a reusable rocket that will deliver a satellite into orbit. Musk then hopes to land the rocket on a floating barge in the Atlantic - an attempt that failed this past January.

The Falcon 9 rocket hit the landing platform, but then broke apart. But just as after every mission, the company will likely pick up the pieces and try again.

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