The SpaceX Dragon- the first privately-owned spacecraft to rendezvous with the International Space Station, and potentially the next spacecraft to carry Americans into space- completed its inaugural mission this morning, spashing down in the Pacific Ocean off Baja California.
The photo to the right is of an earlier test of the Dragon's parachutes.
The combination of the debt crisis and a lack of will on the part of the Obama administration had stopped the American manned space program virtually in its tracks. The Constellation program, designed not only to replace the Space Shuttle but to provide vehicles for an eventual return to the moon and then a manned voyage to Mars, was cancelled by the Administration- although, in fairness, the president later partially reversed himself and gave the go-ahead to the Orion spacecraft, but not to the Ares I or Ares V boosters.
American astronauts had been forced to utilize the Russian Soyuz capsule and booster to reach the ISS. The first unmanned test of the Orion spacecraft will not take place until late 2013 at the earliest.
With the advent of the Dragon, regular unmanned supply missions to the station and eventually the ferrying of astronauts to the ISS and back home seem to be within our grasp much earlier than they would have been had we waited for the development of Orion.
The quality of the spashdown footage below isn't great, but given the difficulty of knowing exactly where the craft would land and the relative lack of resources available to a privately-funded mission with less media coverage than missions of similar importance usually have, that's understandable. As someone has said, given the technical achievement SpaceX has pulled off here, complaints about the quality of the splashdown video seem a bit silly!