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Feature: Enter the Dragon

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccNJDwJNngQ[/youtube]

When the Space Shuttle Discovery made its final flight May 12 — landing at the Smithsonian National Air and Space annex near Dulles Airport in northern Virginia — it marked “a very emotional, poignant, bittersweet moment” for former astronaut Mike Mullane and other space shuttle veterans.

Just a few short weeks later, a reusable spacecraft named Dragon made history as the first commercial vehicle ever to successfully berth at the International Space Station. Developed by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), a private space transportation company based in Hawthorne, Calif., under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, the cargo-filled capsule even had that “new car smell,” said NASA astronaut Donald Pettit, the first man inside. After unloading food, clothing, and equipment, the crew packed the capsule with equipment and hundreds of experiments for the return trip to Earth. The Dragon splashed down May 31 after a nearly flawless nine-day test flight.

Will Dragon usher in a new era of space exploration? SpaceX thinks so. The company, which is owned and operated by PayPal founder Elon Musk, envisions a fleet of space station supply shuttles–a task once done by governments but now being outsourced to private industry.

Like its NASA counterpart, entrepreneurial space exploration is an expensive, risk-filled business. Musk, who founded SpaceX a decade ago, has devoted millions of his own dollars to the rocket startup. Three rockets failed before the Dragon’s successful test flight.

SpaceX aims to launch the next supply mission in September under a contract with NASA. Plans call for a test of the next version of the Dragon–designed to carry crews–later this year. Astronauts could be hitching rides to the space station as early as 2015, if all goes according to plan.

SpaceX founder Musk has much bigger dreams than running a space station taxi service, however. He envisions a reusable spaceship with life-support systems that could ferry humans to and from Mars.

See photos of the Dragon’s historic mission from liftoff to splashdown.

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