SpaceX Dragon capsule ends test flight with ocean splashdown

Theresa Obrien
March 9, 2019

Eastern for a 15-minute reentry burn. Head back to Earth: just hours away. A plume of four large, additional parachutes slowed the capsule's drift through the air and it splash down in the Atlantic Ocean around 8:45 am ET. The ship is also equipped with medical quarters and a helicopter pad so that, when crew is involved, it's ready for emergencies.

Launched last Saturday atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the Crew Dragon spacecraft executed a flawless rendezvous with the International Space Station, catching up with the outpost early Sunday and, after a series of tests, gliding in for a smooth automated docking at the lab's forward port. Instead, it carried a sensor-laden test dummy named Ripley - named for Sigourney Weaver's character in the Aliens films. The yells then turned into roars of cheering applause after Crew Dragon finally hit the water safely and well within sight of its recovery boats off the Florida coast. The capsule then undocked from the International Space Station at 2:32 a.m. Friday after a five-day stay.

The splashdown was the final test on this mission for Crew Dragon, during a flight test for a capsule that could become the first USA craft to carry astronauts into space since the shuttle program was phased out in 2011. The capsule is SpaceX's first that is created to carry humans. And Crew Dragon, as a first-timer to space, faced more risks than more tried-and-tested craft.

SpaceX and Boeing, which is building a vehicle called Starliner, have contracts worth up to $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion, respectively.

Because of the schedule uncertainties, NASA has been talking with the Russians about buying more rides aboard Soyuz spacecraft, at a price that could amount to $80 million or more per seat.

Boeing's Starliner crew capsule is poised to launch its maiden unmanned mission in April ahead of an August test flight carrying US astronauts Michael Fincke, Chris Ferguson and Nicole Mann.

Government officials still have safety concerns about both spacecrafts, according to a recent Reuters report and documents from NASA's safety advisory panel, all of which will need to be resolved before they can fly humans.

ISS Crew Member Earth Continues Work Aboard the Station 1
Earth making sure she is on schedule | Image credit NASA Anne McClain

Dragon's owner, SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk, had previously expressed some anxiety about how the capsule would cope with re-entry, given that the vehicle's backshell, or heatshield, has a somewhat irregular shape that could lead to a roll instability at hypersonic speeds.

If deemed a complete success, the mission would give Nasa increased confidence in one of its prime contractors and propel the space agency a step closer to restoring human spaceflight from United States soil.

Data from the spacecraft's descent on Friday will be key.

The Crew Dragon hatch is closed, as seen from the ISS. A month later, SpaceX could fly its first astronauts to the ISS, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley.

During a video interview with reporters beamed to Earth on Thursday, Saint-Jacques said it looked "like a business class spacecraft". This mission carried out a number of firsts.

Demo-1 was an un-crewed mission.

Three more crew members - Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Christina Koch - are scheduled to arrive at the space station aboard a Russian Soyuz crew capsule next week, on March 14.

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