SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean Friday, completing a NASA demonstration mission that paves the way for the resumption of manned space flights from the US. "It was handsome", said Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine hailed the splashdown, saying it "marked another milestone in a new era of human spaceflight". The mission began March 2, when the Crew Dragon launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and racked up a number of "firsts" in less than a week. On NASA TV, it looked like a slow-motion ballet, even though the two craft were actually orbiting Earth at 17,500 miles per hour.
The re-entry into Earth's atmosphere tested the vehicle's heat shield for the first time, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk had previously said that the phase was "probably my biggest concern".
"We were all very excited to see re-entry, parachute and drogue deploy, main deploy, splashdown - everything happened just perfectly".
Boeing's Starliner crew capsule is poised to launch its maiden unmanned mission in April ahead of an August test flight carrying USA astronauts Michael Fincke, Chris Ferguson and Nicole Mann. Boeing is also in on the project to resume manned space flight from United States soil after an eight year hiatus.
A critical step in validating the performance of SpaceX's systems, Demo-1 brings the nation a significant step closer to the return of human launches to the space station from U.S soil for the first time since 2011, when NASA flew its last space shuttle mission.
The capsule was not crewed, the flight being the Dragon's first launch and landing.
Capsules have no wings and fall to Earth, their descent slowed only by parachutes - much like the Russian Soyuz craft, which lands in the steppes of Kazakhstan.
SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, was selected along with the Boeing group by NASA in 2014 to develop the next generation of space vehicles for U.S. astronauts, after the end of the 1981-2011 space shuttle program. "I realize I've been holding my breath for five years. Our NASA and SpaceX teams worked seamlessly not only in the lead-up to the flight but in how we managed the flight", said Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program.
Considering everything has gone according to plan so far, the odds that NASA will green-light SpaceX to carry two of its astronauts to the ISS are getting higher with each milestone.