SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule returns to Earth after historic test flight

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After a successful first launch to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX's Crew Dragon is now bound to go back to Earth.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean today, ending a six-day uncrewed test run preparing the way for astronaut trips to the International Space Station later this year.

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.

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 US Space Shuttle was retired from service in 2011.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft is safely aboard the company's recovery vessel, Go Searcher, following splashdown at 8:45 a.m. EST on Friday, March 8, 2019.

Before the undocking, ISS crew members closed and locked the Dragon's hatch on Thursday afternoon. The educational stuffed toy will remain on the space station while it's ride returns to Earth. SpaceX plans to launch its first crewed test flight in July with American astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.

- Around 7:45 a.m. ET: Crew Dragon separates from its trunk, "whose exterior contains a solar array that provided power to Dragon and a radiator to reject heat", NASA says.

The mission began March 2, when the Crew Dragon launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and racked up a number of "firsts" in less than a week.

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.

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After dropping behind and below the lab, the Crew Dragon adjusted its orbit and jettisoned its empty trunk section, an unpressurized cargo compartment behind the crew compartment, to set the stage for entry. The spacecraft successfully completed the end-to-end flight test to the ISS and then back to earth.

The flight was a crucial test of the new spacecraft, a seven-passenger vehicle that SpaceX has been developing for the past five years.

During reentry, Crew Dragon is subjected to absolutely incredible stresses.

This marks the first and only demo mission that Crew Dragon will fly without humans on board.

"It won't be long before our astronaut colleagues are aboard Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner vehicles, and we can't wait", USA astronaut Anne McClain said on behalf of the ISS crew after the capsule left the station. Following the shuttle program's end, NASA put its faith in the commercial sector, entrusting two companies, SpaceX and Boeing, to build its future space taxis.

Not since the end of the Space Shuttle programme has the U.S. been able to send its own astronauts into orbit.

The space station's three-member crew greeted the capsule Sunday morning, with US astronaut Anne McClain and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques entering Crew Dragon's cabin to carry out air quality tests and inspections.

The flight is a milestone for Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as they attempt to end United States dependence on Russian Federation for astronaut shuttles to the space station.