SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Returns to Earth After Debut Flight

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon returned to Earth after a debut test flight to the International Space Station, completing a crucial step toward flying people for the first time on a commercially built vehicle.

Slowed by four parachutes during its descent, the unmanned spacecraft splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean around 8:45 am Eastern time Friday about 250 miles east of Kennedy Space Center in Florida, roughly six hours after undocking. Before sealing the Crew Dragon at 12:39 p.m. Thursday for its return, astronauts loaded the vessel with about 330 pounds (150 kilograms) of supplies and other materials to send home.

The flight is a milestone for Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as they attempt to end U.S. dependence on Russia for astronaut shuttles to the space station. NASA’s Commercial Crew program is also relying on a separate Boeing Co. spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, which continues preparatory work for an unmanned trip to the space station slated for no earlier than April.

NASA awarded Boeing and Musk’s SpaceX a combined $6.8 billion in contracts five years ago to fly U.S. astronauts to the space station. NASA retired the Space Shuttle in 2011.

The U.S. space agency has scheduled the Crew Dragon’s next mission for June when SpaceX will conduct an in-flight abort test. The following month, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are set to fly on the vehicle to the space station, the ultimate test for the closely held company’s ability to perform regular ferry duties.

Beyond the NASA flights, Boeing and SpaceX could use their vehicles to offer space rides to tourists and others with the means to pay. SpaceX is interested in flying Crew Dragon passengers other than government astronauts but hasn’t begun prospecting for customers, Musk said March 2 after the spacecraft’s successful launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket.

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