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SpaceX Dragon capsule ends test flight with ocean splashdown

09 March 2019
SpaceX Dragon capsule ends test flight with ocean splashdown

It's a wrap: SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule safely landed in the Atlantic Ocean and concluded one of the most important missions to the International Space Station (ISS).

It was only about a week ago that SpaceX launched the Crew Dragon, the company's first crew-capable spacecraft, towards the International Space Station. As early as July, Ripley the dummy astronaut could be followed by the real deal, as two Americans are scheduled to take off aboard the first crewed Crew Dragon, ending a drought of astronaut launchings from American soil that began in the summer of 2011 when the last space shuttle flew and the program was mothballed. It marked the first time a spacecraft designed for humans has splashed down in the Atlantic since the Apollo 9 capsule did so in March 1969.

The space station's three-member crew greeted the capsule last Sunday, with USA astronaut Anne McClain and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques entering Crew Dragon's cabin to carry out air quality tests and inspections.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon blazes through Earth atmosphere some 20 miles above the planet's surface, as captured by a NASA spacecraft Friday morning.

On March 2, SpaceX launched the first test flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft. Crew Dragon will serve as an astronaut taxi, ferrying people to and from the orbital space station. It remained docked with the station until Thursday, at which point the hatch was closed and locked and the capsule was readied for its return.

Station commander Oleg Kononenko, flight engineer Anne McClain and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques quickly inspected the craft, set up ventilation ducts and unloaded about 400 pounds of crew supplies and equipment.

Crew Dragon's near-perfect flight - an on-time launch, a flawless docking, and six days of operating in the punishing environment of space - did not guarantee a ideal reentry.

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

This final phase of the Demo-1 mission was perhaps the biggest test of Crew Dragon's new build.

What now: Recovery crews are in place and Crew Dragon will be loaded onto the recovery ship. Soon, if all goes as planned, SpaceX and Boeing will compete for those contracts and launch the manned-missions from USA soil. The landing technique is unique to SpaceX, as both Russia's veteran Soyuz capsule and Boeing's forthcoming Starliner are created to land on terra firma rather than at sea.

The Crew Dragon drifts away from the ISS.

Company founder Elon Musk said during a post-launch news conference last Saturday that the capsule's hypersonic entry, along with launch, rendezvous and docking, posed the greatest risks.

Also aboard Crew Dragon was a "zero-g indicator", or a plush globe otherwise known as Little Earth, that was put on board to demonstrate when Crew Dragon entered microgravity. Boeing is up next to test its Starliner capsule.

"The vehicle really did better than we expected", Steve Stich, deputy Commercial Crew program manager for NASA, said shortly after the landing.