The Dragon capsule splashed down to a successful landing in the Pacific Ocean just before noon Eastern time today, completing an up-and-down journey to the International Space Station. While this was done many times with the US space shuttle — and is still being done with Russian Soyuz capsules — the success of Dragon is significant because it is the first private, commercially owned vehicle to make that trip. The capsule, built by SpaceX, was launched on one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets on 22 May, and docked with the space station last week.
SpaceX should begin in earnest now on 12 station resupply missions under terms of a $1.6 billion commercial cargo contract with NASA. The company has plans to certify the capsule for use by astronauts in the next several years.
At over $100 million per launch, Dragon is still not a cheap ride to the station. But it is a bargain basement price compared to the space shuttle, which according to a life-time analysis cost a whopping $1.5 billion per launch. The key difference is the way the rides are bought. The United States “owned” the space shuttle, but paid through the nose for commercial contractors such as Boeing to build it — under a procurement strategy called “cost-plus” that offered few incentives for contractors to find efficiencies. SpaceX and other upstart companies want to sell rides into space not just to NASA but to anyone that wants one — and they want to sell those rides as the commercial airline industry does.
Image credit: Michael Altenhofen