The International Space Station confirmed in a tweet the Crew Dragon undocked at 2:32 a.m. ET. Six hours later, the capsule carrying a test dummy parachuted into the ocean, a couple hundred miles off the Florida coast. The capsule is SpaceX's first that is created to carry humans. Apollo 9 splashed down near the Bahamas on March 13, 1969.
NASA has relied on Russian Soyuz rockets ever since the American space shuttle program was retired on in July 2011.
The mission, known as Demo-1, is a critical step for NASA and SpaceX to demonstrate the ability to safely fly missions with NASA astronauts to the orbital laboratory.
Also traveling aboard the spacecraft is an anthropomorphic test device named Ripley outfitted with sensors to provide data about potential effects on humans traveling in Crew Dragon. In truth, SpaceX absolutely nailed it, and the safe splashdown of the vehicle in the Atlantic Ocean just moments ago was perhaps its most impressive feat yet. At a pre-launch briefing, SpaceX Vice President of Build and Flight Reliability Hans Koenigsmann said that the company is still in the final stages of development on Crew Dragon's internal controls.
America's Boeing has plans to launch its Starliner capsule without a crew as early as next month, and possibly with astronauts in August. Crew Dragon continued to whirl through orbit and burned its thrusters four times to make a carefully choreographed, gradual descent.
The capsule launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket early Saturday morning, successfully docked and detached from the International Space Station before comign back to earth.
While the limelight has been squarely on SpaceX, Elon Musk's space venture is only one half of NASA's overall Commercial Crew ambitions.
Dragon also marks a return to a "vintage" format: it is the first United States capsule since the pioneering Apollo program. 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.
"There's a lot of forward work to complete" on both Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner vehicles, said Sandy Magnus, a former astronaut who serves on the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, during a March 7 meeting of the panel at KSC. He found the capsule "very slick" and called it business class. SpaceX - which has been delivering station cargo for years - is shooting for summer.
Assuming a detailed post-flight inspection and data analysis confirm the capsule's apparently problem-free performance, NASA will be a major step closer to launching two astronauts aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule this summer, the first flight of a US crew from American soil since the shuttle made its final flight in 2011. NASA awarded the first contracts in 2014 to SpaceX and Boeing, now totaling about $8 billion. SpaceX engineers dubbed the dummy Ripley, a nod to a character in the 1979 film Alien.