SpaceX's upgraded Cargo Dragon supply ship makes 1st Atlantic splashdown

SpaceX's Dragon CRS-21 cargo resupply ship is pictured docked to the International Space Station's Harmony module. At right, a portion of the JAXA Kibo laboratory module is pictured.
SpaceX's Dragon CRS-21 cargo resupply ship is pictured docked to the International Space Station's Harmony module. At right, a portion of the JAXA Kibo laboratory module is pictured. (Image credit: NASA)

A SpaceX Dragon cargo resupply spacecraft (opens in new tab) returned to Earth from the International Space Station Wednesday (Jan. 13), splashing down off the coast of Florida for the first time ever.

The Dragon CRS-21 mission, SpaceX's 21st space station cargo delivery for NASA, launched Dec. 6, 2020 (opens in new tab), with 6,400 lbs. (2,903 kilograms) of supplies and science equipment for the seven-person crew of Expedition 64. After a one-day delay due to bad weather at the splashdown zone, the upgraded vehicle autonomously undocked (opens in new tab) from the space station for the first time on Tuesday (Jan. 12), and it splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico west of Tampa about 35 hours later, at 8:26 p.m. EST on Wednesday, Jan. 13 (0126 Jan. 14 GMT).

While previous Dragon cargo missions have ended with parachute-assisted splashdowns in the Pacific, the newly upgraded version of SpaceX's cargo vessel is designed to land in the Atlantic Ocean, closer to the science processing center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (opens in new tab) in Florida.  

Related: SpaceX's 1st upgraded Dragon cargo ship docks itself at space station with science, goodies and new airlock (opens in new tab)

The CRS-21 mission was not only the first to land near Florida, it was also the first to autonomously dock at, and undock from, the International Space Station (opens in new tab). Previous Cargo Dragons have relied on astronauts operating the station's Canadarm2 robotic arm to grapple the spacecraft and berth it with the orbiting lab.

Other space cargo delivery vehicles, like Northrop Grumman's Cygnus spacecraft and Japan's H-II Transfer Vehicle, are intentionally destroyed at the end of their missions; space station astronauts fill the capsules with trash, then use Canadarm2 to send them off toward Earth, and they safely burn up in the atmosphere. SpaceX's Dragon, however, is a reusable spacecraft designed to safely deliver science experiments back to Earth from the space station. The Dragon CRS-21 mission returned with more than 4,400 lbs. (2,000 kg) of "valuable scientific experiments and other cargo," NASA officials said in a statement (opens in new tab).

"The upgraded cargo Dragon capsule used for this mission contains double the powered locker availability of previous capsules, allowing for a significant increase in the research that can be delivered back to scientists," NASA added. "Some scientists will get their research returned quickly, four to nine hours after splashdown."

SpaceX's robotic Dragon capsule splashes down in the Pacific Ocean on May 21, 2015, bringing an end to the company's 6th cargo mission to the International Space Station for NASA. (Image credit: SpaceX)

Some of the scientific cargo on board (opens in new tab) includes engineered heart tissue, organoids grown from human stem cells, biofilms that could corrode stainless steel, zero-g fiber optics and more. 

SpaceX is planning to launch its next Dragon cargo resupply mission, CRS-22, in May of this year. The company's Crew Dragon (opens in new tab) capsule is currently docked with the space station and is expected to return to Earth with its four-person crew in May as well. The next Dragon launch will be another Crew Dragon, which is scheduled to launch the Crew-2 mission (opens in new tab) with another four astronauts in March. 

Email Hanneke Weitering at hweitering@space.com or follow her on Twitter @hannekescience. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Hanneke Weitering is an editor at Space.com with 10 years of experience in science journalism. She has previously written for Scholastic Classroom Magazines, MedPage Today and The Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After studying physics at the University of Tennessee in her hometown of Knoxville, she earned her graduate degree in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) from New York University. Hanneke joined the Space.com team in 2016 as a staff writer and producer, covering topics including spaceflight and astronomy. She currently lives in Seattle, home of the Space Needle, with her cat and two snakes. In her spare time, Hanneke enjoys exploring the Rocky Mountains, basking in nature and looking for dark skies to gaze at the cosmos.