SpaceX's Crew Dragon returned to Earth after a debut test flight to the International Space Station, completing a crucial step toward flying people for the first time on a commercially built vehicle. At 4:52 a.m. PT, the capsule's thrusters fired once more, starting a 15 minute "deorbit burn", slowing the craft down enough to fall back to Earth.
Significant delays hampered the launch of the Crew Dragon but on March 2 it finally achieved lift-off from storied Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center.
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard takes off, on March 2. The past week's flight marked the first-ever Crew Dragon space trip, known as Demonstration Mission 1 or DM-1.
"The uncrewed SpaceX DM-1 mission has one final milestone and that is the safe return to Earth", NASA wrote in an update.
After dropping behind and below the lab, the Crew Dragon adjusted its orbit and jettisoned its empty trunk section, an unpressurized cargo compartment behind the crew compartment, to set the stage for entry.
"The vehicle really did better than we expected", Steve Stich, deputy Commercial Crew program manager for NASA, said shortly after the landing. Six hours later, the capsule carrying a test dummy plopped into the Atlantic off the Florida coast. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine praised Crew Dragon's mission. The asymmetry in the Dragon that results, however, complicates the aerodynamics of reentry, introducing the possibility that the ship could begin rolling uncontrollably while screaming down to Earth.
Cheers rang out at SpaceX headquarters as Crew Dragon's parachutes deployed Friday morning, and then again as the ship splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, shown here.
SpaceX has been delivering goods to the ISS for several years now with its cargo version of the spacecraft.
The reusability of SpaceX's Dragon is one of its selling points, and is also the reason Friday morning's splashdown happened in the Atlantic Ocean, rather than the calmer and bigger Pacific.
Beyond the NASA flights, Boeing and SpaceX could use their vehicles to offer space rides to tourists and others with the means to pay. Soon, if all goes as planned, SpaceX and Boeing will compete for those contracts and launch the manned-missions from US soil. But before astronauts can climb aboard, SpaceX has to prove Dragon is ready. Musk said, "That could potentially cause a roll instability on re-entry". "I think it's unlikely, we've run simulations a thousand times, but this is a possibility". However, SpaceX still has a lot of work to do to achieve its ultimate goal of launching astronauts.
Inside the Crew Dragon, you'll see the shape of a person sitting there. NASA has to pay, of course, and the actual launch of each new group of crew members is largely out of their control.
The forces exerted on the capsule as it blazed a trail through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds had SpaceX CEO Elon Musk concerned during the week.