Private space capsule's maiden voyage ends with splash

By BBC News

The Falcon 9 rocket reached its intended 300 km-high orbit

A private US capsule that could soon be hauling cargo and even astronauts to the space station has splashed down after its maiden flight.

The Dragon ship launched from Florida on a Falcon 9 rocket at 1543GMT (1043 EST) on Wednesday.

The capsule separated about 10 minutes after launch, reaching its 300km-high orbit shortly after.

After completing several manoeuvres some 300km above Earth, the capsule splashed down in the Pacific.

Dragon and Falcon 9 are both products of California’s SpaceX company.

The firm has a $1.6bn (£1bn) contract with the US space agency (Nasa) to provide 12 spacecraft with cargo capacity of at least 20 tonnes to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) through to 2016.

The initiative is part of a much wider American policy to place the carriage of freight and crew transport to the ISS in the hands of the private sector.

This was the first of three test outings intended to prove SpaceX’s systems worked as designed. Dragon will not be allowed near the space station until it can be shown the capsule is safe.

Company and Nasa officials tried to play down expectations ahead of the mission, reminding the media that the complexity of space ventures often results in early mishaps as engineers get to grips with the new technologies.

Although the Falcon 9 rocket has flown successfully once before, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said she was all too aware that difficulties could yet lie ahead for the programme.

“History would say that we’re going to have a substantial issue in one of the first three flights. That’s just empirical; it’s nothing to do with our process or our hopes,” she told reporters.

The vessel completed almost two orbits of the Earth while demonstrating its onboard systems.

A de-orbit burn brought Dragon back down through the atmosphere and a controlled splashdown via the assistance of three parachutes in ocean waters roughly 800km west of the coast of Mexico.

US President Barack Obama hopes the private sector can help fill the gap left by the retirement next year of the space shuttle fleet.

He envisages commercial ships ferrying astronauts and supplies to low-Earth orbit destinations like the ISS, while Nasa concentrates on developing a much more capable rocket and spaceship to venture out into the Solar System.

Dragon’s demonstration flight has been organised under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (Cots) programme, which sees Nasa seed SpaceX with funds to help it deliver a serviceable system.