SpaceX Crew Dragon Set For Splashdown In Atlantic Ocean

SpaceX's Crew Dragon departed from the International Space Station early March 8, splashing down to mark the end of a successful test flight for the commercial crew program.

After landing in the ocean, SpaceX boated out to the capsule, and now plans to retrieve the spacecraft, lift it onto its recovery ship, and return to the Kennedy Space Center where the company houses rockets in a 54,000-square-foot hangar. Their vehicles-SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner-will be NASA's primary means of transporting astronauts for the foreseeable future, ending nearly a decade of reliance on Russia's space program to launch American astronauts.

The first-of-a-kind mission brought 400 pounds 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. Both groups are big players in space and both have helped make the International Space Station what it is today. When it reaches this point, the Crew Dragon would use its own set of rocket boosters to launch away from the Falcon 9 and return to Earth.

SpaceX employees who watched the landing at company headquarters in California cheered when the red and white parachutes opened to lower Crew Dragon into the water.

The burn itself kicked off on time, at 12:53 UTC, shaving a critical few hundred miles an hour off the Crew Dragon's speed ahead of a splashdown, almost 50 years to the day since Apollo 9 returned to Earth.

The Crew Dragon is not now carrying any astronauts.

The International Space Station confirmed in a tweet early Friday the Crew Dragon undocked at 2:32 a.m. EST. The friction with Earth's atmosphere generates intense heat, and just one little mistake in its design or manufacturing could have spelled disaster.

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

Crew Dragon Demo-1 under main parachutes SpaceX's Crew Dragon completes its Demo-1 mission with splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean on 8 March 2019 at 08:45 EST (13:45 UTC).

For now, SpaceX wins the day - and continue to forge a path between the U.S. and the International Space Station.

The crewless mission, called Demo-1, was SpaceX's chance to show it can build a spaceship that can carry people. But before astronauts can climb aboard, SpaceX has to prove Dragon is ready.

Indeed it is. Only NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos have ever delivered astronauts to the space station.

"The bottom line is that the thing has to work every time", NASA astronaut Dough Hurley, one of the two crew members assigned to the July mission, told Ars Technica. "We've run simulations a thousand times, but this is a possibility".

To say that the Crew Dragon did well would be a huge understatement. Following Saturday's launch, Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said that he was "100 percent confident" crew would launch this year.

"I think it's unlikely", SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said on March 2, in the hours before the Crew Dragon's launch.

  • Joey Payne