The capsule landed softly in the Atlantic Ocean nine minutes after takeoff, floating under a parachute quartet, completing a test designed to show that astronauts would be taken to a safe place if there was ever a problem with the rocket.
“It seems like a great test,” said John Insprucker of SpaceX during the live broadcast, when cheers broke out at SpaceX headquarters in California.
The test was announced as a key step on the road to restoring human spaceflight from the ground of the United States.
NASA has not been able to fly astronauts since the space shuttle fleet retired in 2011, and has been forced to rely on Russia to travel to the International Space Station at a cost of up to $ 84 million per seat.
In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop spacecraft capable of flying human to the space station, a bold commitment by the agency to outsource human space flights to the private sector. Since then, the progress of both companies has been hampered by technical problems and financing problems that have delayed the first crew flights for years.
Last spring, a Dragon capsule exploded during a test of its aborted engines. The company blamed a faulty valve that caused a propellant leak. He has also had problems with his parachutes, but they seemed to work well on Sunday.
Boeing has also had a number of problems with its Starliner spacecraft. During a test of his abortion system last year, one of his three main parachutes could not be deployed. And a test of its Starliner capsule in December was interrupted when a software problem prevented the spacecraft from attaching to the space station as planned.
Sunday’s test was one of the last major obstacles that SpaceX had to overcome before NASA astronauts were allowed to fly in what is known as the Commercial Crew Program. The company expects to fly its first mission with astronauts within a few months, but first it needs to analyze mission data and go through a series of security checks.
It is not clear when Boeing could fly its first mission with crews. The company is still investigating what caused its on-board computer to have 11 hours of inactivity, a problem that prevented its engines from starting. NASA has said it is investigating whether it should force the company to fly another unmanned test mission before allowing astronauts on board.
In a recent blog post, Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said that although the docking with the space station is part of the Boeing contract, that requirement could be eliminated.
“Although the coupling was planned, it may not have to be done before the crew demonstration,” he wrote. “Boeing would need NASA’s approval to proceed with a test with astronauts on board.”
Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, said during an information session last week that SpaceX still has some tests of its parachute system to complete. If they go well, he said, the company could launch its first mission with astronauts in March.