CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla (Reuters) – An unmanned capsule from Elon Musk’s SpaceX splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean on Friday morning after a short-term stay on the International Space Station, capping the first orbital test mission in NASA’s long-delayed quest to resume human space flight from U.S. soil later this year.
After a six-day mission on the orbital outpost, Crew Dragon autonomously detached about 2:30 a.m EST (0730 GMT) on Friday and sped back to earth reaching hypersonic speeds before an 8:45 a.m. EST (1345 GMT) splash-down in the Atlantic, about 200 miles off the Florida coast.
A SpaceX rocket launched the 16-foot-tall capsule from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida last Saturday.
Minutes before splash-down, Crew Dragon deployed its four parachutes, easing some concerns about functionality that both NASA and SpaceX had before the landing.
“Everything happened just perfectly, right on time the way that we expected it to,” Benjamin Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management, said in a live stream from California.
The test mission was a crucial milestone in the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Commercial Crew Program ahead of SpaceX’s first crewed test flight slated to launch in July with U.S. astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.
“This really is an American achievement that spans many generations of NASA administrators and over a decade of work by the NASA team,” current Administrator Jim Bridenstine said after the splash-down.
“The vehicle is doing well. The recovery crews are out. They’re on the scene,” said Steve Stich, the crew program’s deputy manager with NASA.
A boat in the zone where Dragon hit the Atlantic lifted the 16-foot spacecraft out of the water about one hour after splash-down using a crane. It will carry the capsule back to land by Sunday.
The first-of-a-kind mission brought 400 pounds of test equipment to the space station, including a dummy named Ripley outfitted with sensors around its head, neck, and spine to monitor how a flight would feel for a human.
The space station’s three-member crew greeted the capsule last Sunday, with U.S. astronaut Anne McClain and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques entering Crew Dragon’s cabin to carry out air quality tests and inspections.
NASA has awarded SpaceX and Boeing Co a total of $6.8 billion to build competing rocket and capsule systems to launch astronauts into orbit from American soil, something not possible since the U.S. Space Shuttle was retired from service in 2011.
The launch systems are aimed at ending U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets for $80 million-per-seat rides to the $100 billion orbital research laboratory, which flies about 250 miles (400 km) above earth.
Bridenstine told Reuters the cost per seat on the Boeing or SpaceX systems would be lower than for the shuttle or Soyuz.
Privately owned SpaceX, also known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp, was founded in 2002 by Musk, who is also a co-founder of electric car maker Tesla Inc.
Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe