Since the Space Shuttle was retired, there are two ways to get cargo off the International Space Station: Fiery destruction in the atmosphere, or a ride inside SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, the only craft capable of returning to Earth meaningful amounts of stuff from the world’s floating outpost in orbit.
On May 12, one of these capsules landed with a splash in the Pacific ocean, carrying 3,700 lbs (1,633 kg) of cargo from the International Space Station.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of the Dragon’s ability to bring cargo back to Earth. Astronaut-scientists are able to gather significant amounts of data and observation in space, but that information needs to be analyzed by a fully equipped terrestrial lab, especially for biological projects.
The latest delivery included samples from a study of the motion of molecules in microgravity, which could help scientists develop nanotechnology to deliver drugs to patients. Another sample looked at how proteins crystals form in microgravity, which could help physicians tailor drugs to fight specific cancers. Beyond the data collected in space, now scientists can mess with the actual experiments.
Land-based labs are equally important for another much-followed NASA effort: the year that astronaut Scott Kelly spent in space to test the human body’s response to low-gravity environments. Samples from six different studies, covering everything from his cardiovascular health to the bacteria that live in his stomach, returned to earth, allowing NASA to better prepare the next generation of astronauts for the physical rigors of space.
Other, more prosaic problems need fixing on back on Earth. The Dragon brought back a spacesuit that malfunctioned during a January spacewalk when water began collecting in its helmet; the astronauts were brought inside but it was a reminder of a much-scarier incident when Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano nearly drowned inside his space suit. On the ground rather than the cramped confines of the ISS, NASA engineers will be able to carefully analyze the suit to figure out what went wrong.
SpaceX won’t be the only company capable of returning goods from space for long. Earlier this year, NASA awarded the second generation of ISS cargo contracts, and all three participants—SpaceX, Orbital ATK and SNC Space Systems—plan to fly craft that can return to Earth with goods.
Indeed, SpaceX hopes that its next spacecraft will perform rocket-powered landings on earth rather than landing in the ocean and drifting many hours while waiting for a ship. Such landings would get biological samples to scientists within three to six hours of departing ISS.