SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule makes successful return to Earth

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The nearly-week long journey culminated when the spacecraft disembarked from the station about 2.30am Friday, fired its engine to slow down, and barrelled through the thickening atmosphere on its fiery return to Earth. Eastern for a 15-minute reentry burn. 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.

Live footage from NASA showed the capsule's four main parachutes opened without a hitch, and it splashed down at 8:45 am (1345 GMT).

Enlarge / The Go Searcher recovery vessel brings Dragon on board. The ship is also equipped with medical quarters and a helicopter pad so that, when crew is involved, it's ready for emergencies. Nasa buys seats for its astronauts, who train with their Russian cosmonaut counterparts.

Even though the capsule came back to Earth looking like a "toasted marshmallow" - in the words of SpaceX engineer Kate Tice - the heat shield held.

This week's flight wasn't the first time that a SpaceX spacecraft has visited the ISS, but it is the first time that one of its capsules docked itself with the orbital outpost.

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 US dependence on Russian Federation for astronaut shuttles to the space station.

It was the final hurdle for the six-day demo, a critical prelude to SpaceX's first flight with astronauts as early as summer.

NASA awarded the first contracts in 2014 to SpaceX and Boeing, now totalling about $8 billion.

Crew Dragon's return to Earth began yesterday, after astronauts finished packing it with about 150 kilograms of return cargo; some of that includes some cold storage samples, NASA said prior to launch.

"However, NASA and SpaceX still have work to do to validate the spacecraft's performance and prepare it to fly astronauts".

The mission has so far gone smoothly.

The space station's three-member crew greeted Crew Dragon upon its arrival.

SpaceX has said it hopes to get the capsule approved for a manned flight in July and Boeing plans to test its capsule next month.

It was a test and familiarization flight for the Crew Dragon. After docking at the ISS, the Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques was the first to enter the capsule, describing it as a "business-class" experience. SpaceX and NASA will now examine the capsule and the data collected by the craft's only passenger, a sensor-packed dummy called Ripley. "That's mainly because we always want, in case there are issues with either system, that we have an integrated crew".

This vehicle is scheduled to have its uncrewed demonstration flight in April or soon after.

The last generation of United States spacecraft, the Space shuttles, landed like airplanes, and two of the four original shuttles had catastrophic accidents that killed 14 crew members.