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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon splashes down in the Atlantic, bringing its first crucial test flight to an end

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The last major test of the capsule’s flight is complete

On Friday morning, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule successfully splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean after spending nearly a week at the International Space Station. The plunge brings the spacecraft’s first test flight to an end. With the splashdown, SpaceX has proven its capsule can survive the harrowing journey to space and back, and that means the company has just made a significant leap forward in its quest to put people on the Crew Dragon someday.

The splashdown marks the last major milestone of SpaceX’s Demonstration-1 or DM-1 mission, a critical test flight required for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. That’s the agency’s initiative aimed at sending NASA astronauts to space on private US spacecraft. SpaceX has been developing the Crew Dragon as a new passenger vehicle for the program. But before the vehicle can carry people, NASA wanted to see the Crew Dragon prove itself in space without anyone on board. So DM-1 was created as a way for NASA to evaluate the capsule’s performance and figure out what needs changing before astronauts can board.

After much anticipation and numerous delays, DM-1 finally got off the ground this month, sparking a whirlwind trip to orbit. The flight began on Saturday when the capsule lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on top of one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets at 2:49AM ET. About a day later, the Crew Dragon met up with the ISS and docked by itself to a port on the outside of the station. Such a docking maneuver was something that SpaceX had never performed before this weekend.

Both the launch and docking were major hurdles that SpaceX needed to clear for DM-1 to be a success, but perhaps the biggest challenge of the mission occurred today when the Crew Dragon returned to Earth. SpaceX needed to demonstrate that the capsule could plunge through our planet’s atmosphere and make it to the ocean in one piece while protecting any cargo inside.

At 2:32AM ET this morning, Crew Dragon undocked from the space station and distanced itself from the lab, in preparation for its descent to Earth. Just before making the plunge into the planet’s atmosphere, the vehicle jettisoned its trunk, a cylindrical structure attached to the base of the capsule that provides power and temperature control during the flight. Crew Dragon then ignited its onboard thrusters for about 15 minutes in order to take the capsule out of orbit. That initiated the final fall to Earth.

The Crew Dragon then dove to the ground, reaching speeds faster than the speed of sound and experiencing intense heating. There was concern that this portion of the return may cause the vehicle to roll because of the capsule’s asymmetrical shape. However, the Crew Dragon made it through this part of the descent. After this intense experience, the capsule then deployed its four main parachutes to slow itself down and then touch down gently in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. A SpaceX recovery boat called Go Searcher will now rendezvous with the capsule and hoist it out of the ocean in order to bring it back to shore.

Though the Crew Dragon didn’t have any living crew members on board, it did carry a smart dummy named Ripley. The mannequin was equipped with sensors to measure the forces and accelerations the human body might experience when riding inside the Crew Dragon. The capsule also carried about 330 pounds of cargo and research from the International Space Station.

It’ll be a while before NASA fully assesses how this flight went, but SpaceX and NASA representatives agreed after the landing that the mission ran smoothly. “The vehicle really did better than we expected,” Steve Stich, deputy manager of flight development and operations for Commercial Crew, said on NASA’s live stream following the splashdown.

In the months ahead, SpaceX will perform another test flight — one designed to try out the Crew Dragon’s emergency abort system. That’s the system that will help save a crew during flight, in case the rocket carrying the capsule experiences a major failure. Engines embedded in the outside of the vehicle can ignite during the ascent to space, carrying the capsule away from a disintegrating rocket. SpaceX will test out this process during a launch from Florida, which is currently targeted for April. The company will use the same Crew Dragon capsule that just finished this week’s mission.

If that goes well, it’ll be time to put people on the Crew Dragon. Two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, are scheduled to fly on the capsule for the first time, during the vehicle’s final test flight. That mission is slated to occur in July, though it’s unclear if that date will hold. However, NASA representatives were confident that the flight could occur in 2019. “I don’t think we saw really anything in the mission so far — and we’ve got to do the data reviews — that, you know, would preclude us having the crewed mission later this year,” said Stich.