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SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule splashes down successfully in Atlantic

The SpaceX commercial astronaut capsule has splashed down successfully in the Atlantic Ocean, marking a significant step in NASA’s quest to resume manned space flight from the US.

The Crew Dragon capsule, whose lone occupant was a test dummy named Ripley, spent a week docked at the International Space Station (ISS) before returning to Earth on Friday morning.

Footage of the landing shows the capsule hitting the water gently under four billowing red and white parachutes. A boat, the GO Searcher, was waiting to recover the capsule, which splashed down about 280 miles (450 km) from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The mission appears to have gone smoothly, which bodes well for plans to use the capsule to ferry astronauts to the ISS this year. 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.

The descent through Earth’s atmosphere had been expected to be the most challenging part of the Crew Dragon’s maiden mission, Elon Musk, the SpaceX founder and chief executive, said.

The capsule’s heat shield and parachute system were relatively untested. After the Crew Dragon was launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Saturday, Musk said there was a chance that the shield’s irregular shape could cause instability at hypersonic speeds.

Since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle programme eight years ago, US astronauts have relied on Russian rockets to travel to the ISS. NASA hopes to use commercial SpaceX rockets from this year.

Ripley is covered in sensors to monitor the forces that human astronauts would be subject to on a similar flight.

The demonstration flight follows news that the Pentagon is reviewing Musk’s security clearance after he smoked marijuana on a Californian comedian’s podcast in September.