SpaceX's unmanned Crew Dragon spaceship splashed into the Atlantic Ocean on Friday, March 8th, ending a six-day test run blazing the path for astronauts to make trips to and from the station using US spacecraft for the first time in 50 years.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had commented before the spacecraft left the International Space Station, earlier on Friday, that his "biggest concern" was the hypersonic plunge through the atmosphere. A live stream of the spacecraft's recovery from the Atlantic showed its outer shell was scarred by the intense heat of re-entry but that it appeared to have survived fully intact.
A SpaceX rocket launched the 16-foot-tall (4.9-metre) capsule was launched by a SpaceX rocket, last Saturday, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After spending six days at the station, the Crew Dragon autonomously detached at about 2:30 am EST (0730 GMT) and dropped 400 kilometres down to earth. After reaching speeds upwards of 5200 kilometres per hour, the craft made an 8:45 am EST (1345 GMT) splash-down about 320 kilometres off the Florida coast.
"Everything happened just perfectly, right on time, the way that we expected it to," Benjamin Reed, SpaceX's director of crew mission management, said in a live stream from California.
The launch was an important achievement for the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Commercial Crew Program. Possibly as early as July 2019, SpaceX plans to conduct its first crewed test flight of the spacecraft carrying US astronauts Nicole Mann, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.
After being retrieved by SpaceX's recovery ship, the spacecraft is due back on shore for inspection on Sunday. Steve Stich, the crew program's deputy manager with NASA, said that so far the results look positive for the upcoming manned launch. "I don't think we saw really anything in the mission so far - we've got to do the data reviews - that would preclude us from having a crewed mission later this year," Stich said.
The mission carried 180 kilograms of test equipment to the space station, including a dummy named Ripley outfitted with sensors around its head, neck, and spine to monitor how a flight would feel for a human. The sensor-laden mannequin, nicknamed Ripley (in honour of Sigourney Weaver's character in the "Alien" sci-fi movies), came along for the ride as well as a plush-toy version of Earth.
The space station's three-member crew greeted the capsule, entitled GO Searcher, last Sunday, with US astronaut Anne McClain and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques entering the spacecraft's cabin to carry out tests and inspections.
NASA has awarded SpaceX and Boeing Co a total of $6.8 billion to build competing rocket and capsule systems that will launch astronauts into orbit from American soil, an achievement that hasn't been possible since the Space Shuttle programme was retired in 2011.
Once they are operational, the new systems aim to end US reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets that cost $80 million-per-seat to ride to the $100 billion orbital research laboratory. According to SpaceX, the Crew Dragon will be able to deliver astronauts to the station at a much lower cost per seat, especially for fully-manned flights with seven astronauts.
While SpaceX is confident the test flights will succeed on schedule, Nasa said in February that it had resumed talks with Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, seeking two additional Soyuz seats for 2020 to maintain a US presence on the space station and provide "flexibility and back-up capability" as the US companies ready their rocket-and-capsule launch systems.
The Crew Dragon is an upgraded version of SpaceX's robotic cargo-carrying Dragon that has brought payloads to and from the space station since 2012. The past week's flight - called Demonstration 1 - marked the first-ever trip of the capsule designed to transport astronauts.
Boeing is planning to send up an uncrewed Starliner spacecraft to the space station, as early as next month, on the top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. If all goes according to plan, the Starliner's first crewed flight is expected to follow as soon as August.