SpaceX’s history-making Crew Dragon mission has come to a close two months after it began. Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley successfully landed in the Atlantic Ocean at 2:48PM Eastern after starting their return to Earth nearly 20 hours earlier. This completes the first crewed orbital flight using a private spacecraft, not to mention the first crewed spaceflight from the US since NASA retired the Space Shuttle in 2011. It’s also the first US splashdown in 45 years.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo reached space in December 2018 and represented the basic return to crewed US flights, but that was a suborbital trip.
Like the launch itself, the Crew Dragon landing was highly automated compared to many previous human-piloted missions. Behnken and Hurley still accomplished a lot, though, including performing and contributing to numerous experiments while they were aboard the International Space Station.
It’s an important occasion beyond the firsts involved. This is the last Crew Dragon test flight. Once SpaceX receives NASA certification, future flights will be regular missions carrying astronauts to the ISS. For NASA, meanwhile, it’s a major step forward for a Commercial Crew Program that could allow for more flights and lower costs.
This also represents a coup for SpaceX. While Boeing is still planning to bring its Starliner capsule into service, SpaceX is clearly ahead at the moment. That could lead to more opportunities with NASA, not to mention civilian flights as space commerce grows.
It also bodes well for the company’s greater ambitions. SpaceX is eyeing flights using Starship for journeys to places as distant as Mars, and Crew Dragon’s success suggests that the firm is on the right track.