The spaceflight company Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, launched the world's first commercial space capsule into orbit and returned to Earth today in a huge leap forward for California-based company, private spaceflight and NASA's plan to rely on such spacecraft in the future.
SpaceX's first Dragon space capsule, as it is known, blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 10:43 a.m. EST (1543 GMT) today (Dec. 8), completed two orbits around Earth and then splashed down in the Pacific Ocean 500 miles (nearly 804 km) off the coast of Mexico to end what appears to be a successful demonstration flight. Here's a look at the mission in photos:
Enter the Dragon: On Dec. 8, 2010, SpaceX joined a realm previously only occupied by national space agencies when it launched the private Dragon spacecraft into orbit and returned it to Earth successfully. Here, NASA photographer Alan Ault snaps a photo of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket as it roars from a seaside launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida carrying the first Dragon space capsule.
LIFTOFF! SpaceX's 18-story Falcon 9 rocket - only the second ever launched by the company - launches toward space carrying the company's first Dragon spacecraft. A camera mounted on the rocket shows the view below as it soars into orbit. [Video of the Dragon spacecraft launch]
What a View: SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets are two-stage rockets, with the second stage carrying the Dragon spacecraft in its nose cone. Here, a camera on the second stage shows the Earth far below as the rocket soared toward orbit. The first stage separated and fell into the Atlantic Ocean.
A Space Dragon: A pivotal moment in SpaceX's first Dragon flight was spacecraft separation, shown here in a video still from the company's mission webcast. Dragon spent only a few hours flying on its own before re-entering Earth's atmosphere as planned. [INFOGRAPHIC: Inside Look at SpaceX's Dragon Capsule]
Flying Alone: Once the Dragon spacecraft was flying alone in space, it was time to record the view. This photo was released by SpaceX while Dragon was still in space. It shows the view from a camera mounted in the spacecraft's circular window.
Hang Time: SpaceX's first Dragon spacecraft dangles under its three main parachutes just before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean about 500 miles west of Mexico to complete its maiden test flight on Dec. 8, 2010. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the landing almost a bull's eye, with the Dragon capsule splashing down just 10 miles away from its target zone.
SPLASHDOWN! After completing two orbits around Earth, SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft splashed down as planned in the Pacific Ocean. Here, a recovery boat closes in on the private space capsule.
Photos From Before Launch
A Private Mission Control: While SpaceX launches spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific (flights from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base are also planned), the company is based in Hawthorne, Calif., which is home to its version of Mission Control. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was at the company's mission control center for the launch.
Gumdrop Space Dragon: In the SpaceX hangar at Cape Canaveral, the Dragon spacecraft prepares for integration with the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Visible at the base of the spacecraft is Dragon?s heat shield, made of PICA-X, the SpaceX manufactured variation on NASA's Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) heat shield material.
In the Dragon's Belly: Even when outfitted with the full cargo storage system, Dragon has plenty of room. Visiting NASA astronauts Cady Coleman and Scott Kelly discuss spacecraft cargo operations with SpaceX engineers. Both experienced space travelers, Cady and Scott are scheduled for upcoming missions to the International Space Station.
The Long View: Space's Dragon spacecraft fly on Falcon 9 rockets like this one shown in the company's hangar in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The rockets have two stages and rely on a liquid oxygen and kerosene propellant.
Parachute Test: The Dragon space capsules use drogue parachutes to slow down after re-entering Earth's atmosphere, then three main chutes for the final trip to splashdown. Here, the three main parachutes are seen as the Dragon spacecraft descends to the Pacific Ocean during an Aug. 12, 2010 drop test from an altitude of 14,000 feet in this photo from the company's photographer Chris Thompson
Astronaut Customers: When SpaceX sends unmanned Dragon cargo ships to the International Space Station, astronauts and cosmonauts will have to pluck the vehicle from space using the station's robotic arm and then unpack it. They may even eventually ride into space on a seven-person version of Dragon, which SpaceX is also planning. Here, visiting astronauts Akihiko Hoshide from Japan, and NASA astronaut Sunita Williams in front of the full size Dragon model spacecraft.
Ocean Splashdown Test: Before SpaceX's successful Dec. 8, 2010 launch of a Dragon capsule into space, the company dropped one into the Pacific ocean to practice recovery operations. Here one of three recovery boats approaches Dragon spacecraft after it has completed its descent as seen by SpaceX photographer Chris Thompson.
Dry Land Again: This photo shows how SpaceX removes Dragon spacecraft from its recovery ship to return it to dry land. Eventually, SpaceX may choose to reuse Dragon capsules, instead of flying them once like all other space capsules flown to date. This photo, taken by SpaceX's Chris Thompson, shows the Dragon capsule after its August 2010 splashdown tests.
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