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WASHINGTON: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule completed its Nasa demonstration mission on Friday with a successful splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, paving the way for the resumption of manned space flights from the US.

After hours of suspense, the Crew Dragon touched down in the Atlantic Ocean at 8:45am, some 370 kilometres off the coast of the US state of Florida.

The capsule brought its “crew” of one test dummy back to Earth in the same way that American astronauts returned to the planet in the Apollo era in the 1960s and 1970s, before the 1981-2011 Space Shuttle Programme.

Nasa TV footage showed the capsule gently drifting into the ocean, its descent slowed by its four main orange and white parachutes, which folded into the water around it as boats sped toward the site.

“Good splashdown of Dragon confirmed!” the SpaceX Twitter account tweeted.

“Beautiful parachute deployment,” said Benji Reed, the director of crew mission management at SpaceX. “I’m still shaking.” Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine hailed the splashdown, saying it “marked another milestone in a new era of human spaceflight.” Launched on Saturday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Dragon docked at ISS the following day before successfully undocking on Friday some 250 miles over Sudan.

On Nasa TV, it looked like a slow-motion ballet, even though the two craft were actually orbiting Earth at 17,500 miles per hour.

The re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere tested the vehicle’s heat shield for the first time, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk had previously said that the phase was “probably my biggest concern”. “You see the light from the atmosphere as it heats up,” astronaut Bob Behnken said of re-entry. “You see some orange light flickering.”

Like Apollo

While Dragon’s crew member was a dummy named Ripley this time, the mission sets the stage for a manned flight, which will see two US astronauts — one of them Behnken — book a return trip to the ISS sometime before the end of the year, according to Nasa.

Boeing is also in on the project to resume manned space flight from US soil after an eight-year hiatus.

“It won’t be long before our astronaut colleagues are aboard Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner vehicles, and we can’t wait,” US astronaut Anne McClain said on behalf of the ISS crew after the capsule left the station.

Nasa and the administration of President Donald Trump have spent all week extolling the historic nature of the mission.

Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2019