South Africa’s Elon Musk achieves milestone as SpaceX Dragon Capsule returns to earth

South African-born Elon Musk achieved another milestone in commercial space travel as his SpaceX Dragon capsule re-entered earth after a 7 day sojour at the International Space Staion.

Already the most successful private space entrepreneur in the world, Elon Musk watched nervously as his new commercial astronaut capsule completed its demonstration flight with a successful splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.

The SpaceX Dragon vehicle left the International Space Station after being docked there for the past week, and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

It had a heat-shield to protect it from the high temperatures of re-entry.

Four parachutes brought it into “soft contact” with water about 450km from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The mission – which had no humans aboard, only a dummy covered in sensors – went according to plan.

The Dragon has set the stage for the US space agency Nasa to approve the vehicle for crewed flights.

Not since the end of the Space Shuttle programme has the US been able to send its own astronauts into orbit. It has had to rely instead on Russia and its Soyuz spacecraft, launching from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Nasa hopes to bring this near-eight year gap in capability to an end with the introduction of two new commercial transportation systems – the Dragon and another vehicle being developed by aircraft manufacturer Boeing.

The first crewed flight could occur as soon as July, although this target date may slip into the summer as engineers work through the post-flight analysis.

Splashdown occurred at about 08:45 EST (13:45 GMT). A boat, called GO Searcher, was waiting to recover the capsule. There were cheers at mission control as the capsule landed in the Atlantic.

The Dragon’s owner, SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk, had previously expressed some anxiety about how the capsule would cope with re-entry, given that the vehicle’s backshell, or heatshield, has a somewhat irregular shape that could lead to a roll instability at hypersonic speeds.

The director of crew mission management at Space X, Benjamin Reed, spoke to Nasa TV moments after the capsule splashed down.

“It was an incredible journey to get to this moment,” he said. “The teams have just done an amazing job – both the Space X and the Nasa teams jointly.