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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - A privately owned company put a spacecraft into orbit and brought it back on Wednesday in a groundbreaking test flight NASA hopes will lead to cargo runs to the International Space Station after the space shuttles are retired next year.
The NASA-backed mission was designed to try out a new system for delivering cargo, and possibly crew someday, to the orbital outpost. It was the first time a private company launched and returned a capsule from orbit.
Space Exploration Technologies' Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 10:43 a.m. EST/1543 GMT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, carrying the company's first operational Dragon capsule.
After two orbits of Earth, it parachuted to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean shortly after 2 p.m. EST/1900 GMT.
Two more test flights are planned, though SpaceX might be able to combine the pair and attempt to dock at the station next summer before its first cargo-delivery mission, slated for November.
SpaceX, which is owned and operated by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, is one of two firms holding a combined $3.5 billion in NASA contracts to deliver cargo to the space station when the space shuttles are retired after two or three more missions [ID:nN08139426].
NASA is contributing $500 million to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp to develop and test-fly their rockets and capsules.
Orbital plans to debut its Taurus 4 rocket next year.
During Wednesday's test flight, the Dragon capsule ran through a preprogrammed series of maneuvers that simulated an approach and docking with the space station.
After about three hours, Dragon fired four of its thruster rockets to leave orbit and re-enter the atmosphere, giving its heat shield a workout that could not be simulated on Earth.
The capsule survived re-entry and landed about 500 miles off the coast of Mexico. The company rented a NASA ship to retrieve the capsule.
SpaceX has spent more than $600 million developing Falcons and Dragons.
The company intends to upgrade Dragon with a launch escape system and hopes it will serve as a taxi for astronauts and other people wanting rides to the station and other planned outposts in orbit around Earth.
By backing commercial space projects, NASA wants to see if it can cut costs, spur new industries and open more supply lines for the station, a $100 billion international project that is near completion.
The idea is for the U.S. space agency to become a consumer of services, rather than provider, said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program and the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"If we overrun this program, we have to come up with the money through investment to cover the cost, which is dramatically different from contracts where if the contractor overruns, taxpayers have to pay the overruns," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said.
"I think that's exactly why this program was set up that way -- to limit the government's exposure."
Editing by Tom Brown and Philip Barbara