May 31, 2012, 3:23 PM — The first commercial spacecraft to lift off from the U.S. is on its way home from a mission to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.
The Dragon cargo spacecraft was undocked from the space station at 4:07 a.m. EDT Thursday and the orbiter's robotic arm released it back into its own orbit at 5:49 a.m.
The capsule then went through a series of burns and maneuvers to move away from the station and begin its return trip back to Earth.
Dragon is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles west of Baja, Calif., at 11:44 a.m. EDT today. Crews are on standby in the Pacific waiting to capture the capsule and return it to SpaceX.
The precedent-setting mission is the first of what may be many U.S. commercial flights to the space station now that NASA's fleet of space shuttles has been retired.
Without the shuttles available to ferry astronauts and cargo to and from the space station, NASA is hiring commercial companies to do the job.
NASA scientists and engineers now are focused on building high-powered engines and robotics, as well as preparing for more ambitious missions to the moon, asteroids or Mars.
"We're now back on the brink of a new future, a future that embraces the innovation the private sector brings to the table," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said after the capsule was launched on May 22. "The significance of this day cannot be overstated."
The Dragon spent five days, 16 hours and five minutes docked to the space station.
The Dragon cargo capsule carried 1,014 pounds of food and clothing, along with student-designed experiments.
Once the capsule was unloaded, astronauts loaded it back up with 1,300 pounds of used scientific equipment, experiments, and other cargo.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.