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SpaceX Dragon capsule splashes into Pacific after historic journey

  • SpaceX Dragon in Pacific.jpg

    My 31, 2012: At 11:42 AM Eastern, SpaceX completed its historic mission when the Dragon spacecraft splashed down safely in the Pacific. The vehicle will now be recovered by boats and start the trip back to land. (SpaceX / Michael Altenhofen)

  • SpaceX Dragon Docked at Dawn.jpg

    May 27, 2012: With rays of sunshine and the thin blue atmosphere of Earth serving as a backdrop, the SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is berthed to the Earth-facing side of the International Space Station's Harmony node. (AP Photo/NASA)

  • spacex docking 2.jpg

    May 24, 2012: The International Space Station, seen by the thermal imaging camera aboard the SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft as it approaches. (AP Photo/NASA)

  • elon-musk-smiles-spacex-launch

  • SpaceX historic launch 1.jpg

    May 22, 2012: The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from space launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla. This launch marks the first time, a private company sends its own rocket to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Splashdown!

The SpaceX Dragon capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean Thursday at 11:42am ET in a momentous end to the California company's test mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

"Splashdown successful!! Sending fast boat to Dragon lat/long provided by P3 tracking planes," wrote SpaceX founder Elon Musk on Twitter. 

Lockheed's P-3 Orion is a four-engine maritime surveillance aircraft meant to track submarines; they had no trouble finding Dragon. Off the west coast of the Baja California peninsula, recovery boats made contact with the 19-foot (5.8m) tall, 12-foot (3.6m) wide vehicle about 10 minutes after splashdown and began work to pluck it out of the ocean.

'Launch, docking, reentry and recovery successful. Welcome home, baby.'

- SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk

Dragon will be shipped to the Port of Los Angeles and will then go to SpaceX's McGregor, Texas, facility, about 100 miles (160km) south of Dallas, where its 1,000 pounds (450kg) of cargo will be processed and handed over to NASA.

“This is a really huge step in restoring the supply line to the space station that we lost,” former astronaut Tom Jones told Fox News.

“More important, it restores a return link,” he added, notably for scientific samples returning from space but also for the day to day gear and waste that is created by the astronauts working aboard the orbiting station.

The unmanned cargo ship parachuted back to the planet six hours after its early morning release, returning nearly 1,400 pounds of old gear -- making it the first to return such a load since NASA's shuttles retired last year.

 Other cargo crafts are designed to burn up in the atmosphere, whereas the Dragon craft is intended for safe return and reuse.

Dragon also makes it cheaper for NASA to send cargo -- and at some point, potentially astronauts -- into space. Trips on Russian spaceships cost about $60 million at present, and are set to rise in 2015.

"If NASA can economize on trips to the space station, than deep space trips become more feasible," Jones noted.

The capsule received the go ahead earlier Thursday to "execute the burn" and return to Earth after its historic supply mission.

The spacecraft -- the first commercial vehicle to link up with the ISS -- was attached to the ISS for five days, 16 hours and five minutes.

It was fully released from the space station's robotic arm after earlier "demating" from the ISS.

Dragon's successful return marked an end to SpaceX's momentous test mission.

Dragon was launched atop SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., last Tuesday. The capsule ferried only food, water and clothing to the six astronauts on board the ISS, though SpaceX could start regular cargo runs to the station carrying more valuable supplies as soon as the fall.

Newswires contributed to this report.