An unmanned capsule from Elon Musk’s SpaceX has splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean after a short-term stay on the International Space Station, capping the first orbital test mission in NASA’s quest to resume human space flight from US soil later this year.
After a six-day mission on the orbital outpost, Crew Dragon autonomously detached at 6.30pm on Friday night (AEDT) and sped back to earth reaching hypersonic speeds before a 2.45am (AEDT) splash-down in the Atlantic on Saturday, about 320km off the Florida coast.
A SpaceX rocket launched the 5-metre-tall capsule from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida last Saturday.
Minutes before splash-down, Crew Dragon deployed its four parachutes, easing some concerns about functionality that both NASA and SpaceX had before the landing.
“Everything happened just perfectly, right on time the way that we expected it to,” Benjamin Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management, said in a live stream from California.
— NASA Commercial Crew (@Commercial_Crew) March 8, 2019
The test mission was a crucial milestone in the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Commercial Crew Program ahead of SpaceX’s first crewed test flight slated to launch in July with US astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.
“This really is an American achievement that spans many generations of NASA administrators and over a decade of work by the NASA team,” current administrator Jim Bridenstine said after the splash-down.
“The vehicle is doing well. The recovery crews are out. They’re on the scene,” said Steve Stich, the crew program’s deputy manager with NASA.
A boat was in the zone where Dragon hit the Atlantic and was set to lift the spacecraft out of the water about one hour after splash-down using a crane.
Crew Dragon is on SpaceX’s recovery vessel—completing the spacecraft’s first test mission! pic.twitter.com/6K0qgnHd4O
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) March 8, 2019
It will carry the craft back to land by Sunday.
The first-of-a-kind mission brought 180kg 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.
The space station’s three-member crew greeted the capsule last Sunday, with US astronaut Anne McClain and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques entering Crew Dragon’s cabin to carry out air quality tests and inspections.
High-definition cameras aboard the @Space_Station provide clear views of @SpaceX's #CrewDragon. After a five-day mission on our orbiting laboratory, the spacecraft is set to autonomously detach from the @Space_Station and descend to Earth. Watch: https://t.co/ZuxLDtzW9c pic.twitter.com/Ixoi29Gn4l
— NASA (@NASA) March 8, 2019
NASA has awarded SpaceX and Boeing Co a total of $US6.8 billion ($9.6 billion) to build competing rocket and capsule systems to launch astronauts into orbit from American soil, something not possible since the US Space Shuttle was retired from service in 2011.
The launch systems are aimed at ending US reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets for $US80 million-per-seat rides ($113 million) to the $US100 billion ($141 billion) orbital research laboratory, which flies about 400km above earth.
Bridenstine told Reuters the cost per seat on the Boeing or SpaceX systems would be lower than for the shuttle or Soyuz.
Privately owned SpaceX, also known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp, was founded in 2002 by Musk, who is also a co-founder of electric car maker Tesla.