SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceship splashes down at end of crucial space station trip

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship hits the waters of the Atlantic Ocean for splashdown. (NASA via YouTube)

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean today, ending a six-day uncrewed test run preparing the way for astronaut trips to the International Space Station later this year.

Scorch marks were visible on the side of the 27-foot-long craft as it descended at the end of four red-and-white parachutes and hit the water at 5:45 a.m. PT. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had said the hypersonic plunge through the atmosphere was his “biggest concern,” but the capsule appeared intact.

SpaceX’s recovery ship headed out to pull the Dragon onto its “nest” and bring it back to shore for inspection.

After splashdown, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine gave a shout-out to predecessors going back more than a decade, for setting up a commercial crew program aimed at filling the gap left by the space shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011.

“This is an amazing achievement in the history of the United States of America, and it just really exemplifies what we can achieve when we maintain that constancy of purpose,” he said.

The Crew Dragon was launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the night of March 1-2 and spent several days docked to the space station. No humans were aboard, when the Dragon unhooked itself at 11:31 p.m. PT Thursday and backed away from its port on the station’s U.S.-built Harmony module, 250 miles above the planet. 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.

Once the Dragon reached a safe distance, NASA’s Mission Control in Houston radioed its congratulations to SpaceX’s team, the station’s crew and partners around the world.

“We wish this new asset to human spaceflight fair winds and following seas as it returns to Earth for its splashdown in the Atlantic,” Mission Control said. “You have all made us proud today.”

Aboard the station, NASA astronaut Anne McClain returned the compliment on behalf of the three-person crew.

“We want to take a moment to recognize this milestone accomplishment that marks the inaugural mission of the commercial crew program,” she said. “Fifty years after humans landed on the moon for the first time, America has driven a golden spike on the trail to new space exploration feats through the work of our commercial partner SpaceX and all of the talented and dedicated flight controllers at NASA and our international partners.”

McClain said “it won’t be long” before astronauts start riding SpaceX’s Crew Dragon as well as Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, another space taxi that’s being developed for NASA’s use.

“We can’t wait,” she said.

The Crew Dragon is an upgraded version of the robotic cargo-carrying Dragon that has been ferrying payloads to and from the space station since 2012. The past week’s flight marked the first-ever Crew Dragon space trip, known as Demonstration Mission 1 or DM-1.

A spacesuit-wearing, sensor-laden mannequin nicknamed Ripley (in honor of Sigourney Weaver’s character in the “Alien” sci-fi movies) rode in one of the Dragon’s seats, to document what living, breathing astronauts would hear and feel. A plush-toy version of Earth was also included as a zero-gravity mascot, along with 400 pounds of supplies.

About 300 pounds of cargo, including unneeded hardware and scientific samples, were packed aboard the Dragon for the return trip. But the plush toy, nicknamed Li’l Earthie, is staying behind. NASA said the toy would be brought back to Big Earth when two NASA astronauts — Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken — fly on Demonstration Mission 2 to the space station.

“I think our plan is to have him teach us,” Behnken said, referring to Li’l Earthie. “He’s going to welcome us aboard probably when we get there. … He’s a full-fledged crew member.”

Some issues still need to be resolved before that crewed mission. For example, some tweaks may need to be made to the thruster system, and the parachute system still has to be fully certified for crewed flights.

Additional issues may turn up as a result of Demo-1’s post-flight assessment, or during an upcoming test of the Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort system. Few people would be surprised if Demo-2 was launched later than July.

Boeing, meanwhile, is scheduled to send an uncrewed Starliner to the space station as early as next month, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Starliner’s first crewed flight would follow, in August or later.

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.

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