SpaceX Crew Dragon Set To Return To Earth From Inaugural Mission

Pat Wise
March 13, 2019

If that mission also succeeds, then SpaceX should be certified to carry astronauts back and forth to the station on a regular basis.

Dragon splashed into the Atlantic Ocean exactly on time, at 08:45 EST (13:45 UTC). SpaceX, which launched the first Falcon 9 rockets just as the Commercial Crew Program began, is on-target to launch human passengers in just a few months.

It is a huge achievement as it was the first autonomous docking of any United States spacecraft to the ISS.

The Crew Dragon splashing down.

Officials at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration will scrutinize the performance of the SpaceX capsule's parachute deployment and its buoyancy after splash-down - two of the design and functionality concerns first reported by Reuters in February. It successfully docked with the space station on Sunday, and remained docked for five days before departing on Friday. At 11:32 p.m. PT., it released a set of hooks from the ISS and slowly drifted away from the space laboratory with two short thruster firings.

Ripley is covered in sensors that will provide SpaceX engineer valuable data about the flight and future conditions for astronauts. To date, all Dragon cargo craft have instead berthed with the ISS-slowly approaching the space station and waiting for a crew member to grab the ship with a robotic arm. But the Dragon went through all the steps that will have to be executed when astronauts climb aboard the next spaceship, as early as this July.

It's biggest challenge was yet to come: Atmospheric re-entry. CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk was nervous but can now breathe a sigh of relief. The spacecraft splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean at 8:45 a.m.

The Go Searcher recovery vessel brings Dragon on board
Enlarge The Go Searcher recovery vessel brings Dragon

This week's flight wasn't the first time that a SpaceX spacecraft has visited the ISS, but it is the first time that one of its capsules docked itself with the orbital outpost.

The successful test flight paves the way for Space X's crewed test flight, which is expected to take place in June.

Crew Dragon, created to fly astronauts to the ISS, was rocketed into orbit last Saturday morning for its maiden unmanned flight.

NASA will be livestreaming the event, starting with the ISS separation at 2:30 a.m. EST on Friday, March 8.

Still more parachute tests are planned before the scheduled crew launch, in the hope both of refining the technology and easing industry and government jitters. "Our NASA and SpaceX teams worked seamlessly not only in the lead-up to the flight but in how we managed the flight", said Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program.

Unlike past programs that NASA controlled from top to bottom, the new spacecraft were intended from the start to be commercially developed, giving the winning companies ownership and much more control over the finished product along with the freedom to sell seats to non-NASA customers.

Meanwhile, Boeing is gearing up for its first unmanned test following a delay due to a fuel leak in its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft.

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