Crew Dragon departs ISS and returns to Earth

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Updated 8:50 a.m. Eastern after splashdown.

WASHINGTON — SpaceX’s Crew Dragon departed from the International Space Station early March 8, splashing down to mark the end of a successful test flight for the commercial crew program.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft, flying a mission designated Demo-1, undocked from the station’s Harmony module at 2:32 a.m. Eastern. It quickly moved away from the station as in preparation for its return to Earth.

The spacecraft fired its thrusters at 7:53 a.m. Eastern for a 15-minute reentry burn. That reentry appeared to go as planned, with the spacecraft first deploying two drogue parachutes followed by its four main ones. The spacecraft splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean at 8:45 a.m. Eastern within sight of SpaceX recovery ships.

The spacecraft launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida March 2, docking with the station 27 hours later after a problem-free approach. The station’s crew spent several days monitoring the spacecraft while docked to the station before closing hatches between the station and spacecraft March 7.

Demo-1 undocking
The Crew Dragon spacecraft undocked from the International Space Station at 2:32 a.m. Eastern March 8, about six hours before its splashdown in the Atlantic. Credit: NASA TV

“Fifty years after humans landed on the moon for the first time, America has driven a golden spike on the trail to new space exploration feats,” NASA astronaut Anne McClain said from the station shortly after Crew Dragon departed. “It won’t be long before our astronaut colleagues are aboard Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner vehicles, and we can’t wait.”

NASA’s current schedule calls for an in-flight abort test of Crew Dragon, using the same capsule as flown on Demo-1, in June. That will be followed as soon as July as Demo-2, carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

Even before the launch, though, NASA officials cautioned that there was still some work to do on Crew Dragon before it would be ready to carry astronauts. They still hoped that a crewed test flight could take place before the end of the year but did not commit to a specific schedule.

“There’s a lot of forward work to complete” on both Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner vehicles, said Sandy Magnus, a former astronaut who serves on the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, during a March 7 meeting of the panel at KSC. “We’re not quite ready to put humans on either vehicle yet.”

She added that she and the rest of the panel were pleased that NASA was taking steps, such as buying two additional Soyuz seats from Roscosmos, to alleviate any perceived schedule pressure on the commercial crew program.

“We think both providers, and NASA, are doing the right things in a very deliberate fashion to get to the point where we can say, ‘yea, verily, let’s launch some people,’ which we are all eagerly awaiting,” she said.