SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceship leaves space station for autonomous trip home

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. The capsule, which deployed its parachutes to land in the water, was safely retrieved by SpaceX's Go Searcher recovery ship.

In this image taken from NASA Television, SpaceX's swanky new crew capsule, above, takes off after undocking from the International Space Station, right, Friday, March 8, 2019. NASA explained in a blog post on March 2 that the system is recording "everything an astronaut would experience throughout the mission, such as the forces, acceleration, the protection offered by Crew Dragon's seats, and overall environment". The past week's flight marked the first-ever Crew Dragon space trip, known as Demonstration Mission 1 or DM-1. It successfully linked up with the space station the next day.

The spacecraft will bring back to Earth more than 300 pounds of science equipment, supplies and hardware. Saturday's launch and Sunday's docking were spot on.

But the bottom of the Crew Dragon is slightly asymmetrical, its flawless contours rendered imperfect by the four pairs of engines built around the base of the ship.

After reaching space, the Crew Dragon spacecraft spent 24 hours chasing the space station. Crew Dragon will serve as an astronaut taxi, ferrying people to and from the orbital space station. The recently built spacecraft docked to the International Space Station (ISS) last week, its first test mission went according to plan.

The unmanned SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule touched down safely Friday morning in the Atlantic Ocean.

Waiting in the wings is Boeing and its CST-100 Starliner capsule, being prepared for an unpiloted test flight this spring and its initial piloted launch this fall. In recent years, NASA and SpaceX have conducted 18 airplane drop tests of dummy Dragons with functioning chutes, and grew increasingly convinced of the system's reliability.

"Human spaceflight is the core mission of SpaceX, so we are really excited to do this", Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX's vice president for build and flight reliability, said on Friday in a pre-launch briefing. That didn't happen, and the company proved the Crew Dragon is ready for the next step.

"I'm kind of shaky and I'm super excited", said Benji Reed, SpaceX's director of crew mission management. But he said he thought it was "unlikely" since the company had run "simulations a thousand times".

Inside the Crew Dragon, you'll see the shape of a person sitting there.

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 behaviour.

They will be joined by three more crew members on March 14: NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Christina Koch, and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin.

  • Essie Rivera