SpaceX's Crew Dragon Returns Tomorrow, Testing the Future of Human Spaceflight

US unmanned spacecraft dragon 2 undocks from International Space Station NASA

The almost week-long journey culminated when the spacecraft disembarked from the station about 2:30 a.m. Friday, fired its engine to slow down, and barreled through the thickening atmosphere on its fiery return to Earth until finally splashing down into the Atlantic Ocean at 8:45 a.m.

Launched last Saturday atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the Crew Dragon spacecraft executed a flawless rendezvous with the International Space Station, catching up with the outpost early Sunday and, after a series of tests, gliding in for a smooth automated docking at the lab's forward port.

It was only about a week ago that SpaceX launched the Crew Dragon, the company's first crew-capable spacecraft, towards the International Space Station. SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule has unlatched from the International Space Station early today morning and has began its descent. Boeing is also in on the project to resume manned space flight from U.S. soil after an eight year hiatus. Boeing is set to test their crewed vehicle in Spring this year. Before the mission, NASA officials had said the spacecraft's ability to dock autonomously to the station would be one of the biggest tests of the vehicle. A brand new Crew Dragon will be used for the first piloted test flight this summer. SpaceX's Go Searcher recovery ship participated in retrieving the capsule. Without wings, the capsules fall to earth assisted by parachutes, rather than at space shuttles that more closely resembled planes that "flew" back to Earth.

Also aboard Crew Dragon was a "zero-g indicator", or a plush globe otherwise known as Little Earth, that was put on board to demonstrate when Crew Dragon entered microgravity. Land off the West Coast and you have to truck or fly your Dragon all the way across the country to get it back to Cape Canaveral and readied for another launch.

After leaving the station Crew Dragon then spent the next several hours tracking away from the station and getting on track to reenter Earth's atmosphere.

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

NASA TV footage showed the capsule drifting down into the ocean, its decent slowed by its four main orange and white parachutes, which gently folded into the water around it as boats sped toward the site.

Crew Dragon's departure burns quickly moved it outside the station's imaginary 200-meter-wide Keep Out Sphere, and in roughly 20 minutes, it was outside the 4-by-2 kilometer approach ellipsoid. Like most complex space projects, the Commercial Crew Program has experienced its fair share of delays. "Everything happened just perfectly, right on time the way that we expected it to".

Despite the distractions, Friday's landing appeared to be another triumph for SpaceX, and validation of years of work. NASA signed commercial crew contracts with both SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 and their goals are to build American spaceships that can send astronauts into space.

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