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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – 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.
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.