What a catch: Florida fisherman reels in parachutes from SpaceX in-flight abort test

Fisherman to SpaceX: I think I have your stuff

PONCE INLET, Fla. – About two weeks after SpaceX intentionally blew up a rocket over the Atlantic Ocean to test its astronaut spacecraft’s emergency abort system, a Florida fisherman reeled in an unusual catch: two red parachutes and a white hatch door.

Dave Stokes said he saw the white hatch bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean 32 miles off the Daytona Beach coast last week while he was out fishing with some friends. When they pulled it onboard, they saw it had the word “Dragon” on it and an emblem on the front.

“I saw the Dragon on the door and I figured it was a door part of the Dragon capsule,” Stokes said.

The hatch wasn’t the only thing they found. The anglers pulled up two parachutes found floating near the hatch. Video by Stokes shows the anglers pulling the red chutes up inch-by-inch.

A project manager at Pioneer Aerospace, the Connecticut company that made the drogue parachutes for SpaceX, confirmed to News 6 that they were used during the recent in-flight abort test.

On Jan. 19, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 with the Crew Dragon capsule from Kennedy Space Center. About two minutes after liftoff, the spacecraft triggered an abort and separated from the rocket, proving its ability to keep astronauts safe in the event of a Falcon 9 rocket launch failure.

Aided by white-and-red-colored parachutes, the Crew Dragon splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean about 10 minutes after launch in the same place crews were standing by to retrieve the capsule.

When reached for comment, a SpaceX spokesperson declined to confirm the hatch came from the Jan. 19 in-flight abort test. In response, the company shared the number to call its debris recovery hotline -- 1-866-623-0234 -- and the message any callers would hear.

After their find, the couple tweeted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and called and left a message on the SpaceX debris hotline. They have not heard back.

“I’d like for SpaceX to come check it out to see what they think about it ... any damage to it,” Stokes said. “It would also be awesome to have Elon Musk autograph it.”

News 6 also called and emailed officials with NASA to find out if they plan to help recover the items. They redirected all questions to SpaceX.

While neither SpaceX nor NASA would confirm that Stokes had caught a Dragon capsule hatch, clues on the parachutes helped track down their origins.

Printed on the chutes are the words “Pioneer Aerospace Corp.,” which is the name of the Connecticut-based company responsible for manufacturing parachutes used by NASA, SpaceX and the U.S. military. A Pioneer Aerospace spokesperson confirmed the chutes recovered by Stokes were the drogue parachutes used for the in-flight abort test made by the company for SpaceX.

Drogue parachutes are smaller parachutes that deploy ahead of the larger four main parachutes.

On left, SapceX Crew Dragon'd drogue parachutes during a July parachute test. On right, images of the chutes recovered in the Atlantic Ocean. (Image: SpaceX/Dave and Liz Stokes/WKMG) (WKMG 2020)

Airborne Systems, in California, has been tasked with designing the main parachutes for both Boeing and SpaceX astronaut capsules, along with NASA’s Orion moon spacecraft. However, it’s not uncommon for multiple contractors to work on a project of this scale.

As for the piece with the Dragon logo, below is a side-by-side of the Crew Dragon logo and the white hardware recovered offshore. There are two hatches on the spacecraft: one on the side and a forward-facing hatch.

On left, a rendering the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft from the company's website. On right, Dave Stokes with his seaward discovery. (Image: SpaceX/Loren Korn/WKMG) (WKMG 2020)

Stokes said he thinks he could see a future in space debris recovery, joking his experience on the open water could help.

“I could probably find debris pretty good if they had a close place of where it went down,” Stokes said.

The day Stokes and his friends reeled in this unusual find they also managed to catch some fish, too.