SpaceX Crew Dragon completes first spaceflight with splash down in Atlantic Ocean

Undocking, return to Earth final part of crucial Demo-1 test flight

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - The first human-rated commercial spacecraft to dock at the International Space Station departed early Friday morning from the orbiting laboratory and later splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, about 200 miles off Florida's coast.

The undocking, descent from Earth orbit and water-landing were the final stages of the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s first test flight.

Falcon 9 launched Saturday before dawn with the Crew Dragon capsule, designed to carry up to seven astronauts, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center launch complex 39A.

The capsule was then brought back to port on Saturday evening. 

An anthropomorphic test device, or mannequin, in flight suit was on board the spacecraft for the maiden flight. The mannequin, named Ripley, was equipped with sensors to help better understand what astronauts will experience when they launch on the capsule.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also included a small “zero gravity sensor” in the shape of an Earth-shaped plush toy. The astronauts have been showing the Earth buddy around the space station. The educational stuffed toy will remain on the space station while its ride returns to Earth.

History made: Crew Dragon was the first spacecraft to dock at the space station’s new international docking adapter, installed in the Harmony module by astronauts in August 2016. NASA astronaut Anne McClain and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques opened the hatch Sunday becoming the first to enter the new vehicle in space.

Here's the timeline for the undocking and splashdown: The Crew Dragon undocked at 2:31 a.m. Friday and splashed down around 8:45 a.m.

The spacecraft brought back to Earth more than 300 pounds of science equipment, supplies and hardware.

It's the first time a human-rated spacecraft has completed its flight with a splash down in the Atlantic Ocean in 50 years. Apollo 9 splashed down near the Bahamas on March 13, 1969.

Where to watch: NASA will stream the undocking and landing at NASA.gov beginning at 2 a.m.

What's at stake: While NASA hasn't reported any issues for the first part of Crew Dragon's test flight but the spacecraft must also do well through the descent. The data from the demonstration-1 flight is part of the process to secure certification from NASA to fly crew.

A final abort test is scheduled for June and if that goes well NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley could fly on the first crewed flight of Crew Dragon in July, according to NASA's most recent timeline.

The U.S. has relied on Russia to launch its astronauts since 2011 when the space shuttle program ended.

In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop spacecraft to launch U.S. astronauts. Boeing received $4.2 billion to build the CST-100 spacecraft and SpaceX received $2.6 billion to build its Dragon V2 spacecraft, or Crew Dragon.

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner space capsule will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The first flight without crew is slated for no earlier than April and a crewed launch in late summer.

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