SpaceX Dragon, 1st private spacecraft to fly to ISS, is on the way home

(CBS/AP) CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The Dragon spacecraft is on its way home.

Early Thursday morning, space station astronauts set the SpaceX capsule loose after a five-day visit.

The world's first commercial supply ship is due to splash down in the Pacific at 11:44 a.m. Eastern Time Thursday. It will aim for an area 560 miles southwest of Los Angeles. On board are science samples and old station equipment.

All the latest space news from William Harwood at CBS News Space

CBS News space consultant William Harwood reports that with the space station's Canadian-built robot arm locked onto the Dragon cargo craft, four gangs of motorized bolts holding the capsule in place were driven out, releasing the spacecraft from the ISS' Harmony module's Earth-facing port at 4:07 a.m. Eastern.

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Last week, the California-based SpaceX became the first private company to send a cargo ship to the International Space Station. It's now on the verge of becoming the only supplier to return major items. The government-provided cargo vessels of Russia, Europe and Japan burn up on descent. NASA lost the capability of getting things back when the shuttles were retired last year.

Within 11 minutes or so, the capsule was outside a pre-defined safety zone around the space station and SpaceX assumed full responsibility for the remainder of the mission, says Harwood.

More on SpaceX from NASA.gov

"The departure sequence is fairly quick, it's a three-burn series, two small burns then one big burn," said NASA Flight Director Holly Ridings. "The Dragon will head away from the space station outside the integrated space and that'll be the end of our integrated activity with the SpaceX/Dragon team. That process is 10 or 11 minutes after the release time."

"So again, very quick, very different from rendezvous day when we spent a lot of time in integrated space. The Dragon will head on out and be on its own in terms of the Dragon team controlling and managing the rest of the activities through the day."

The capsule carried a relatively light load of low-priority supplies and equipment for the test flight and the astronauts off-loaded the bulk of the 1,100 pounds of gear in a single day. That left re-entry and splashdown as the final objectives of the mission.

If all goes well, Harwood says the spaceraft will be hauled onto the deck of the primary recovery ship and taken to the Port of Los Angeles for shipment to SpaceX's McGregor, Texas, facility for post-flight processing.

For the test flight, environmental samples will be turned over to NASA in the Port of Los Angeles in a run through of the early access protocols. The remainder of the 1,455 pounds of return cargo will be off-loaded in McGregor and turned over to NASA.

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