The new American spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts and built by SpaceX gently splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean on Friday morning, ending a successful demonstration trip.
“This is an amazing achievement in American history,” Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said on NASA Television afterward.
The mission, even though there were no astronauts aboard, was a milestone in NASA’s strategy of turning to private companies to provide trips to orbit for its astronauts. Instead of building its own vehicles, like the space shuttles that were retired in 2011, the space agency hired SpaceX and Boeing to develop commercial space systems.
Last Saturday, SpaceX was the first to launch its spacecraft, an upgraded version of the Dragon capsule that has carried cargo to the space station for years. The Crew Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station a day later. Early on Friday, it left and after a couple of orbits of Earth, it fired its thrusters to allow Earth’s gravity to pull it down.
It landed right on schedule, at 8:45 a.m. about 230 miles off the east coast of Florida.
“If you missed it, I’m sorry, because that was really cool to see,” Daniel Huot, a NASA spokesman, said on NASA Television.
Even though there were no people aboard, there was a spacesuit-adorned mannequin, nicknamed Ripley after the heroine in the “Alien” movies, sitting in one of the Crew Dragon seats. The device’s sensors will tell engineers how the trip would have been for humans.
After being fished out of the ocean and brought back to shore, the same capsule will be refurbished for another launch, also uncrewed, as soon as June. That trip will be more harrowing — a simulated malfunction of the rocket. The capsule’s thrusters will attempt to whisk away the capsule, which will then parachute into the ocean.
If that works, two NASA astronauts will ride in another Crew Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, perhaps as soon as July.
Boeing’s first crewless test of its Starliner capsule is scheduled for the end of April, and its first flight with astronauts could occur later this year.