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Mission of the Dragon proves value of new space pathways

May 31, 2012 - By The Kansas City Star

For decades, space has been the exclusive province of government. But that's no longer true, after Space Exploration Technology Corp. successfully docked its Dragon capsule at the International Space Station, was relieved of its cargo by the space station crew, disengaged from the station, splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean on Thursday, then was returned to land to be used again.

SpaceX, as the company is called, is blasting into space as a business, taking major steps toward filling the vacuum left by the retirement of the last space shuttle.

The company has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to deliver cargo to the space station and $1 billion in orders for future satellite launches from commercial concerns, foreign governments and research entities.

SpaceX is also one of several space companies competing to carry astronauts to the space station someday.

This is a historic shift, one that harnesses the dynamism of competition to space travel and transport, just as commercial aviation was substantially developed by the private sector.

In the previous arrangement, NASA closely supervised the design of rockets and space vehicles while contracting the work to big aerospace corporations.

Under the new policy, SpaceX designed and built its Falcon 9 rocket -- and the Dragon capsule -- on its own.

Dragon achieved its rendezvous with the space station 240 miles above the Earth, where astronauts snared it with a robot arm and brought it in for docking.

Then they opened the hatch and unloaded the 1,014 pounds of food, water and clothing inside. Dragon's interior, said astronaut Don Pettit, had "the smell of a brand new car."

Then came the picture-perfect splashdown Thursday in the Pacific.

With the retirement of the space shuttle, America's space program seemed to hit a dead end. But the new policy of contracting out the work has opened fresh avenues for aerospace development.

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