Crew Dragon departs ISS and returns to Earth

ISS crew member and plush toy Earth continues work aboard the station

Should that mission go well, the next flight of the Crew Dragon will include humans.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon, the first commercial spacecraft built for humans to travel to the International Space Station, splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean on Friday morning, ending a historic mission and beginning the next phase of human spaceflight.

The burn itself kicked off on time, at 12:53 UTC, shaving a critical few hundred miles an hour off the Crew Dragon's speed ahead of a splashdown, almost 50 years to the day since Apollo 9 returned to Earth.

A SpaceX rocket launched the 16-foot-tall capsule from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida last Saturday.

While docked at the ISS, humans entered the vehicle for the first time ever, in space. SpaceX engineers dubbed the dummy Ripley, a nod to a character in the 1979 film Alien.

ISS Crew Member Earth Continues Work Aboard the Station 1
Earth making sure she is on schedule | Image credit NASA Anne McClain

The space station's three-member crew greeted the capsule last Sunday, with US astronaut Anne McClain and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques entering Crew Dragon's cabin to carry out air quality tests and inspections. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also included a small "zero gravity sensor" in the shape of an Earth-shaped plush toy. It is equipped with a heat shield to protect it from the high temperature re-entry into Earth's atmosphere and four parachutes to reduce its speed for splashdown about 280 miles (450km) from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It quickly moved away from the station as in preparation for its return to Earth. By 13:45 UTC the Crew Dragon was bobbing around in the ocean, awaiting collection by the recovery vessel "Go Searcher" stationed nearby. 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 unmanned capsule's voyage marks a key milestone for Elon Musk's space company and NASA's long-delayed goal to resume human spaceflight from USA soil later this year.

Now, SpaceX and Crew Dragon must demonstrate their ability to safely shepherd astronauts back to Earth. And the first crewed mission, which will carry astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, is slated for July, according to NASA's most recent schedule. Success will also mean that "Earthy", a plush anthropomorphic doll of our planet, will be coming home from the space station.

The timeline for Boeing's Starliner is not as clear.

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If this test which has been titled "demo-1" is successful we could see two NASA astronauts make the trip sometime this summer. Boeing aims to conduct the first test flight of its Starliner capsule in April, with astronauts on board possibly in August.

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