Wrapping up a historic mission, SpaceX's innovative Crew Dragon, the first new American spacecraft created to carry astronauts to orbit since the shuttle's debut in 1981, wrapped up a unpiloted maiden test flight Friday, plunging back to an Atlantic Ocean splashdown after a five-day visit to the International Space Station.
Hatches were closed at midday Thursday and right on time, at 2:31 a.m. Friday, latches holding the Crew Dragon in place retracted and the ship's flight computer executed a series of thruster pulses to slowly pull away from the station.
The re-entry 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.
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.
The capsule will prepare itself for landing with a deorbit burn before a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.
The crew of the GO Searcher, a SpaceX ship rigged to recover returning crew capsules, planned to haul the spacecraft aboard and return it to Port Canaveral for detailed post-flight inspections. The Crew Dragon is equipped with eight escape engines in case of an emergency. Instead, it carried a sensor-laden test dummy named Ripley - named for Sigourney Weaver's character in the Alien films.
Additional issues may turn up as a result of Demo-1's post-flight assessment, or during an upcoming test of the Crew Dragon's in-flight abort system. The toy made appearances in several photos with the astronauts aboard the ISS while they completed routine tasks this week.
"Fifty years after humans landed on the moon for the first time, America has driven a golden spike on the trail to new space exploration feats", NASA astronaut Anne McClain said from the station shortly after Crew Dragon departed.
The SpaceX mission represents the first private venture to the ISS, as well as the first time a space vessel capable of carrying people was launched by the United States in eight years. SpaceX plans to launch its first crewed test flight in July with American astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.
Earth making sure she is on schedule | Image credit NASA Anne McClain
Because of the schedule uncertainties, NASA has been talking with the Russians about buying more rides aboard Soyuz spacecraft, at a price that could amount to $80 million or more per seat.
NASA has awarded SpaceX and Boeing a total of $6.8 billion to build competing rocket and capsule systems to launch astronauts into orbit.
Data from the spacecraft's descent on Friday will be key. The dummy is part of the test to make sure the capsule is suitable for humans during space travel. Dragon Crew is making history for all sorts of reasons.
"There's a lot of forward work to complete" on both Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner vehicles, said Sandy Magnus, a former astronaut who serves on the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, during a March 7 meeting of the panel at KSC.
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.
"We were all very excited to see re-entry, parachute and drogue deploy, main deploy, splashdown - everything happened just perfectly". It was a test and familiarization flight for the Crew Dragon.
Demo-1 was an un-crewed mission.
Since the government agency responsible for spaceflight shut down its space shuttle program eight years ago, NASA has paid Russian Federation to fly its astronauts to space.