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The team behind the successful landing of the commercial spacecraft Dragon this morning is elated over the achievement — and none more than the company's founder: billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.
The South African-born Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) in 2002, and today saw it reach its greatest triumph, when the unmanned Dragon capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean to end a textbook mission.
Dragon launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket May 22 and three days later became the first privately built vehicle to dock at the International Space Station. Today (May 31), after more than five days at the station, Dragon departed and flew home to splash down in the Pacific Ocean.
"The point at which the main parachutes opened and all three were working and Dragon was descending normally, that’s the point at which I really felt relieved and knew that the mission was likely to be 100 percent successful," Musk said during a press conference following the splashdown. "I'm just overwhelmed with joy." [Dragon's Space Station Mission in Pictures]
When Musk saw the first high-resolution photo of the charred but intact capsule floating in the ocean, he said he thought, "'Welcome home, baby.' It's really great, it's like seeing your kid come home."
Musk is also the co-founder of internet payment service PayPal and electric car company Tesla. He has financed SpaceX partly through his own money, and partly through investments from NASA, which is hoping commercial spacecraft can take over the cargo- and crew-delivery tasks of the retired space shuttles.
Dragon's mission was a trial run for SpaceX's plan to fly 12 supply runs to the space station for a total of $1.6 billion.
Musk said the mission would not have been possible, and indeed SpaceX might not even exist, were it not for NASA.
"Thanks for placing your faith in SpaceX and making all of our dreams come true," he said to Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo program.
"We weren't sure exactly how it was going to end up," Lindenmoyer admitted. "It was a bit of an experiment. Today we get to share in the joy of the success. It is a new way of doing business and the fact that we were so successful in meeting these objectives so early on, I would say absolutely that this is a model that works."
Musk hoped today's success would also help sway critics of the plan, particularly those in Congress, who doubt that privately built spaceships are safe or reliable.
"I think it really shows that commercial spaceflight can be successful," Musk said. "This mission worked for the first time right out of the gate. It was done, obviously, in close partnership with NASA, but in a different way, and it shows that that different way works and we should reinforce that."
The space-flown Dragon capsule will soon be unpacked and shipped to SpaceX's facility in Texas for processing. But eventually it might get another taste of glory.
"I think it'd be cool to maybe do a little tour of the country and show it to people around the country, get students excited about space," Musk told SPACE.com.