SpaceX Crew Dragon Test Flight Ends With Spot-On Splashdown
The first test flight of SpaceX's Crew Dragon appears to have been an all-around success.
Earlier today, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon successfully completed its first test flight to the International Space Station with a successful splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean:
The new American spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts and built by SpaceX gently splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean on Friday morning, ending a successful demonstration trip.
“This is an amazing achievement in American history,” Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said on NASA Television afterward.
The mission, even though there were no astronauts aboard, was a milestone in NASA’s strategy of turning to private companies to provide trips to orbit for its astronauts. Instead of building its own vehicles, like the space shuttles that were retired in 2011, the space agency hired SpaceX and Boeing to develop commercial space systems.
Last Saturday, SpaceX was the first to launch its spacecraft, an upgraded version of the Dragon capsule that has carried cargo to the space station for years. The Crew Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station a day later. Early on Friday, it left and after a couple of orbits of Earth, it fired its thrusters to allow Earth’s gravity to pull it down.
Mr. Bridenstine praised not only SpaceX and NASA but also earlier presidential administrations. More than a decade ago, NASA under the George W. Bush awarded the first contracts for companies to take cargo to the International Space Station. The Obama administration expanded that to include astronauts.
“We’re going to have numerous providers that are going to compete on cost and innovation,” Mr. Bridenstine said.
The Crew Dragon capsule landed right on schedule, at 8:45 a.m. Eastern time about 230 miles off the east coast of Florida.
“If you missed it, I’m sorry, because that was really cool to see,” Daniel Huot, a NASA spokesman, said on NASA Television.
Even though there were no people aboard, there was a spacesuit-adorned mannequin, nicknamed Ripley after the heroine in the “Alien” movies, sitting in one of the Crew Dragon seats. The mannequin’s sensors will tell engineers how the trip would have been for humans.
The capsule was fished out of the ocean, covered in scorch marks from the atmospheric re-entry that made it look like a toasted marshmallow.Once brought back to shore, the same capsule will be refurbished for another launch, also uncrewed, as soon as June. That trip will be more harrowing — a simulated malfunction of the rocket. The spacecraft’s thrusters will attempt to whisk away the capsule, which will then parachute into the ocean.
If that works, two NASA astronauts will ride in another Crew Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, perhaps as soon as July.
Boeing’s first crewless test of its Starliner capsule is scheduled for the end of April, and its first flight with astronauts could occur later this year.
“These are all capabilities that are leading to a day when we are launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Mr. Bridenstine said.
More from The Washington Post:
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft splashed down safely in the Atlantic Friday after undocking from the International Space Station, appearing to successfully complete the first mission of the vehicle the company designed to fly humans.
There were no people on board the spacecraft, built to carry four NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. The nearly week-long journey culminated when the spacecraft disembarked from the station about 2:30 a.m. Friday, fired its engine to slow down, and barreled through the thickening atmosphere on its fiery return to Earth until finally splashing down into the Atlantic Ocean at 8:45 a.m.
The capsule was hoisted out of the water and placed on the deck of a recovery boat shortly before 10 a.m.
The mission comes at a precarious time for brash billionaire Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, who has come under fire for his sometimes erratic behavior.
The reentry is one of the biggest tests of the Dragon and of SpaceX, the company founded by Musk in 2002 with the ultimate goal of flying humans to Earth’s orbit and beyond. If deemed a complete success, the mission would give NASA increased confidence in one of its prime contractors and propel the space agency a step closer to restoring human spaceflight from U.S. soil.
Since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA has been unable to fly its astronauts. Instead, it has paid Russia for rides to the space station at an increasing price tag that now tops $80 million.
In 2014, NASA awarded contracts worth a combined $6.8 billion to SpaceX and Boeing to build spacecrafts capable of carrying NASA’s astronauts to the orbiting laboratory 250 miles above Earth. Since then, both companies have faced delays and setbacks. But now, SpaceX has taken a major leap forward and is poised to fly its first test mission with two NASA astronauts on board later this year.
Boeing is scheduled to fly its first uncrewed mission to the station by next month at the earliest, though that date is likely to slip, officials have said.
SpaceX’s uncrewed mission began early Saturday, when its Falcon 9 rocket blasted off in the predawn darkness from a historic launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the crew of Apollo 11 began their journey to the lunar surface.
Once aloft, the SpaceX craft traveled to the space station, whizzing around Earth at 17,500 mph, catching up early the next morning. Before the mission, NASA officials had said the spacecraft’s ability to dock autonomously to the station would be one of the biggest tests of the vehicle.
Russia, one of NASA’s key partners on the space station, initially objected, citing concerns with SpaceX’s computer systems that would fly the vehicle toward the station.
But like the launch, the docking was a success, and soon the three astronauts on board the station — NASA’s Anne McClain, Oleg Kononenko of Russia, and Canada’s David Saint-Jacques — were able to check out the first commercial space vehicle designed for human space flight ever to dock with the station.
In a call with the astronauts on board the station Wednesday, Vice President Pence said, “It was inspiring to see the launch, and it was actually more inspiring to see the docking, and to see you all open that door and float into that spacecraft knowing that we’ll very soon have American astronauts arriving at the International Space Station in the same vehicle.”
The successful landing is a coup for SpaceX and a relief for Musk, who said he wouldn’t be able to relax until the spacecraft had landed safely.
While it’s difficult to tell from just observation, it does appear that this crucial test for the Crew Dragon was a success all around. The launch itself went off without a hitch, as did the docking and undocking with the International Space Station, and the return to Earth put the capsule down right in the range of where the planning wanted it to land. It’s possible, of course, that the underlying data will reveal some issues that engineers will have to deal with prior to the next test and, of course, prior to the first manned mission to the International Space Station, which is currently scheduled for July of this year. On the whole, though, the entire mission appears to have gone as well for SpaceX and NASA as they could have asked. Getting things ready for a crewed test and then regular use will take some time, but if all goes as planned we’ll finally have a way to get astronauts to the ISS without having to rely on and pay, the Russians for the privilege.
Congratulations to Elon Musk and the entire team at SpaceX!
Here’s the video of the coverage of the undocking and splashdown: