SpaceX says it could send astronauts to the International Space Station as early as April after achieving the last major milestone of its Dragon manned capsule program on Sunday. The company fired off a Falcon 9 rocket topped with a crew capsule and tested the emergency escape system before blowing up the rocket, which had already been used for three previous launches and refurbished. Despite windy conditions and choppy seas, the system appeared to perform flawlessly and the capsule was picked up by a recovery ship within a few minutes of splashdown. The successful test sets the stage for the return to manned space flight by NASA, which ended with the last flight of the space shuttle Atlantis in 2011, forcing the U.S. to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the ISS.
“I’m super fired up,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told a news conference. “It’s just going to be wonderful to get astronauts back into orbit from American soil after almost a decade of not being able to do so.” The first NASA astronauts to kick the tires on the SpaceX capsule will be Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken, who are expected to use the Dragon for a trip to the ISS. The astronauts suited up for Sunday’s test, going through the various prelaunch steps before they swapped seats with a couple of Musk’s trademark mannequins, which took the wild ride. Thousands lined the beaches of Florida’s Space Coast to watch the launch, test and explosion of the rocket, which occurred at an altitude of about 25 miles.