SpaceX capsule back on Earth, paving way for new manned US flights

WASHINGTON (AFP) – SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean on Friday, completing a NASA demonstration mission that paves the way for the resumption of manned space flights from the United States (US).

After hours of suspense, the Dragon spacecraft touched down at 8.45am some 230 miles off the coast of the US state of Florida.

The seven-seat capsule brought its “crew” of one test dummy back to Earth in the same way that American astronauts returned to the planet in the Apollo era in the 1960s and 1970s, before the 1981-2011 Space Shuttle Programme.

NASA TV footage showed the capsule drifting down into the ocean, its decent slowed by its four main orange and white parachutes, which gently folded into the water around it as boats sped toward the site.

Pending the analysis of flight data, everything indicated that SpaceX – founded in 2002 by Elon Musk – had passed its test from beginning to end, a result that drew widespread praise.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine hailed the splashdown, saying it “marked another milestone in a new era of human spaceflight”.

The head of the Russian space agency Roskosmos sent his congratulations via Twitter to his “dear colleagues Jim Bridenstine and Elon Musk!”

And former President Barack Obama noted that it was his government that launched the commercialisation of astronaut space transport. “We invested in the @Commercial_Crew programme to strengthen the US space programme for the long haul, and it’s great to see that happening,” he tweeted.

Launched on March 2 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Dragon docked at ISS the following day before successfully undocking on Friday some 250 miles over Sudan.

The re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere tested the vehicle’s heat shield for the first time, and Musk had previously said that the phase was “probably my biggest concern”.

Even though the capsule came back to Earth looking like a “toasted marshmallow” – in the words of SpaceX engineer Kate Tice – the heat shield held. While Dragon’s crew member was a dummy named Ripley this time, the mission sets the stage for a manned flight, which will see two US astronauts book a return trip to the ISS.

In June, the capsule’s in-flight abort system will be put to the test: the rocket will take off without human passengers, after which the capsule will eject using its own engines and return safely in a simulation of an incident. “I don’t think we saw really anything in the mission, so far – and we’ve got to do the data reviews – that would preclude us having the crewed mission later this year,” Deputy Programme Manager at NASA Steve Stich said on Friday.

Separately, Boeing is scheduled to carry out an unmanned demo mission in April of its Starliner capsule.