ROUGH CUT (NO REPORTER NARRATION) Crew members on board the International Space Station closed the hatch on the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule on Thursday (March 7), prepping the unmanned capsule for its journey back to Earth.
The capsule's voyage marks a key milestone for Elon Musk's space company and NASA's long-delayed goal to resume human spaceflight from U.S. soil later this year.
The 16-foot tall (4.9 meter) capsule docked at the space station on Sunday after lifting off a day earlier from Florida's Kennedy Space Center atop a Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a test dummy nicknamed Ripley..
During its five-day stay, U.S. astronaut Anne McClain and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques ran tests and inspected Crew Dragon's cabin.
SpaceX said the spacesuit for Ripley, apparently a reference to the protagonist in the science fiction movie "Alien", has been embedded with sensors around its head, neck, and spine to monitor how a flight would feel for a human.
The capsule will undock from the space station early on Friday morning, orbiting the earth a few times before splashing into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.
NASA has awarded SpaceX and Boeing Co $6.8 billion to build competing rocket and capsule systems to launch astronauts into orbit from American soil for the first time since the U.S. Space Shuttle was retired from service in 2011.
Either SpaceX or Boeing will have bragging rights as the first private company to launch humans into orbit on its own rocket, although plans call for rockets built by both companies to carry astronauts into space.
The launch systems are aimed at ending U.S. reliance on Russian rockets for rides to the $100 billion orbital research laboratory, which flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth, at about $80 million per ticket.
While Saturday's SpaceX test mission is a crucial step in the oft-delayed project, there are questions about whether NASA can achieve its 2019 flight goal of manned flight.
Reuters reported on Feb.
21 that SpaceX and Boeing both must address significant design and safety concerns before they can fly humans.