SpaceX Crewed Dragon Test Flight Finishes With Perfect Splashdown
SpaceX has now completed the first demonstration flight for the crewed version of its Dragon spacecraft. After launching atop a Falcon 9 rocket and traveling to the International Space Station (ISS) earlier this week, the spacecraft has now returned to Earth. The Demo-1 mission successfully splashed-down in the Atlantic Ocean on March 8th, moving the Commercial Crew Program one step closer to flying humans into space.
NASA has been forced to rely on Russian Soyuz capsules to get personnel to and from the ISS ever since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011. It launched the Commercial Crew Program in 2010 to support US companies in the development of new spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from space. Like most complex space projects, the Commercial Crew Program has experienced its fair share of delays. SpaceX, which launched the first Falcon 9 rockets just as the Commercial Crew Program began, is on-target to launch human passengers in just a few months.
The Dragon 2 capsule’s return to Earth started at 2:30 AM EDT when it undocked from the station. The capsule fired its engines four times to aim the predetermined location in the Atlantic. The final burn lasted about 15 minutes, helping to slow the craft as it descended into the atmosphere. It landed just on time at 8:45 AM EDT near the recovery ship. The thermal protection on the Dragon came out looking burnt (as you can see above), but that’s intentional. SpaceX and NASA will now examine the capsule and the data collected by the craft’s only passenger, a sensor-packed dummy called Ripley.
If everything checks out, SpaceX will move on to an in-flight test of its launch abort system in June. That system should be able to yank the Dragon 2 capsule away from the Falcon 9 in the event of a problem with the rocket. A month later, SpaceX could fly its first astronauts to the ISS, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley.
Meanwhile, Boeing is gearing up for its first unmanned test following a delay due to a fuel leak in its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. That flight should happen in April, and a crewed flight with the CST-100 could come as soon as August. With both companies nearing final approval, NASA should have the means to get crew to and from the ISS when its Soyuz contracts run out at the end of this year.