CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – An unmanned capsule from Elon Musk’s SpaceX splashed into the Atlantic Ocean on Friday, successfully completing a mission crucial to NASA’s long-delayed quest to resume human space flight from U.S. soil later this year.
After a six-day mission to the International Space Station, Crew Dragon detached and sped back to Earth, reaching hypersonic speeds before an 8:45 a.m. splash-down about 200 miles (320 km) off the Florida coast.
A SpaceX rocket launched the 16-foot-tall (4.9-meter) capsule from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 2.
It was a crucial milestone in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program ahead of SpaceX’s first crewed test flight, which is slated to launch in July with U.S. astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken aboard.
“This really is an American achievement that spans many generations of NASA administrators and over a decade of work,” said current Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Steve Stich, the crew program’s deputy manager with NASA, said the vehicle was doing well after the splash-down.
The mission carried 400 pounds (180 kg) 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.
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.
Results from this mission will determine whether SpaceX can stick to its test schedule following previous development delays for the company and Boeing.
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.
NASA resumed talks with Russia’s space agency Roscosmos in February, seeking two additional Soyuz seats for 2020 to maintain a U.S. presence on the space station.
The short-notice solicitation, posted on Feb. 13, “provides flexibility and back-up capability” as the companies build their rocket-and-capsule launch systems.
Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule is poised to launch its maiden unmanned mission in April ahead of a manned August test flight.
NASA said the cost on the Boeing or SpaceX systems would be lower than for either the shuttle or Soyuz.