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This image provided by NASA shows the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft just prior to being released by the International Space Station's Canadarm2 robotic arm (top center) on Thursday May 31, 2012 as it heads toward a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.NASA/The Associated Press

The world's first commercial space cargo carrier returned to Earth on Thursday, ending its revolutionary voyage to the International Space Station with an old-fashioned splashdown in the Pacific

The unmanned SpaceX Dragon capsule parachuted into the ocean about 800 kilometres off Mexico's Baja California, bringing back more than a half-ton of old station equipment. It was the first time the U.S. space agency, NASA, received a large load from the orbiting space station since its space shuttles stopped flying last year.

Thursday's dramatic return capped a test mission that was virtually flawless, beginning with the May 22 launch aboard the SpaceX company's Falcon 9 rocket from Florida and continuing through the space station docking three days later and the departure just six hours before it hit the water.

"Launch, docking, reentry and recovery successful," SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, said in a statement provided by the California-based company. "Welcome home, baby."

The bell-shaped Dragon resembled NASA's Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft of the 1960s and 1970s, but it symbolizes the future for American space travel. Mr. Musk aims to launch the next supply mission in September under a steady contract with NASA, and says astronauts can be riding Dragons to and from the space station in as little as three or four years.

The Dragon represents NASA's future as laid out by President Barack Obama. He wants routine orbital flights turned over to private business so the space agency can work on getting astronauts to asteroids and Mars.

NASA astronauts are now forced to hitch rides on Russian rockets from Kazakhstan, an expensive and embarrassing outsourcing, especially after a half-century of manned launches from U.S. soil. It will be up to SpaceX or another U.S. enterprise to pick up the reins.

Several companies are competing for first place. Rival Orbital Sciences Corp. hopes to have its first unmanned test flight off by year's end, launching from Virginia. It also has a NASA contract for cargo runs

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden congratulated SpaceX.

"This successful splashdown and the many other achievements of this mission herald a new era in U.S. commercial spaceflight," he said in a statement.

It will take a few days to transport the capsule by barge to the Port of Los Angeles. From there, it will be trucked to the SpaceX rocket factory in Texas for unloading and inspection.

Space station astronaut Donald Pettit was eager to know Thursday's outcome. With 11 minutes remaining before splashdown, he asked NASA's Mission Control in Houston how things were going.

"Any chutes yet?" he wondered. Too early, came the reply. Four minutes later, grainy infrared TV images showed the three red-and-white-striped main parachutes all out.

"That's good news," the astronaut said.

Russia's Soyuz spacecraft for carrying crews also parachutes down, but on land, deep inside Kazakhstan. All of the government-provided cargo vessels of Russia, Europe and Japan are filled with station garbage and burn up on descent.