CAPE CANAVERAL — Space station astronauts readied the world's first commercial supply ship Wednesday for its early morning return to Earth, just like NASA's old-time capsules.
The unmanned Dragon capsule was due to splash down into the Pacific today, nine days after its historic launch to the International Space Station.
Astronaut Donald Pettit and his crewmates closed the hatch to the SpaceX Dragon and disconnected cables on the eve if its departure, after packing it with 1,400 pounds of experiments and old equipment for the ride back.
Early today, the plan was to reverse the steps Pettit took for Dragon's arrival last week, using the space station's robot arm to release the vessel. After flying solo around the planet a few times, the capsule was to aim for a splashdown, via parachutes, at 11:44 a.m. eastern time, about 500 miles southwest of Los Angeles.
The California-based SpaceX — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — is the first private business to launch a spacecraft to the orbiting complex. If today's descent goes well, the company will become the only supplier capable of bringing back a fair amount of space station gear. The Russian Soyuz capsules, now the only option for transporting astronauts, can fit three people and little else.
NASA wants to use Dragons to restock the station's pantry and return items like the space shuttles did until last summer. Other companies are also developing spacecraft for cargo and crews.