NASA and SpaceX leaders say they will need more U.S. Coast Guard support for the next Crew Dragon splashdown after the astronaut capsule was surrounded by private boaters Sunday afternoon in the Gulf of Mexico after the splashdown near Pensacola.
Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken had to wait a little longer for their Dragon spacecraft nicknamed Endeavour to be recovered due to some unwanted spectators in the splashdown area.
The astronaut pair were the first to launch on the SpaceX spacecraft from Kennedy Space Center on May 30 to the International Space Station, marking the first human spaceflight from U.S. soil since 2011. The afternoon splashdown into calm seas marked the completion of the Demo-2 test flight.
About a dozen private vessels in the splashdown area were told to leave as they attempted to approach the SpaceX spacecraft. It was a situation that could have gone badly as the spacecraft has hazardous and explosive chemicals, including nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine.
“What is not common is having passers by approach the vehicle close range with nitrogen tetroxide in the atmosphere, that’s not something that is good,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “And we need to make sure that we’re warning people not to get close to the spacecraft in the future.”
The SpaceX recovery crew is a team of about 40 people on three boats: the main recovery vehicle and two fast boats. Outside of those vessels Coast Guard boats should be the only other ones in the area for 10 miles. On Sunday, the private boats could be seen surrounding the recovery effort on the NASA livestream.
During a post-landing news conference, Bridenstine said the landing site was cleared by the U.S. Coast Guard before the landing but then after the splashdown the private vessels “just came in.”
“Certainly, we had all the clearance that was required at landing,” Bridentstine said, adding that as soon as the “capsule was in the water for a good period of time, and, you know, the boats just made a beeline for it so it’s a big area to have to clear and clear all of it is probably gonna require more resources.”
Bridenstine said the wayward boats were not anticipated but despite the tropical storm on Florida’s east coast “it was a beautiful, sunny day” on the west coast and a lot of boaters were on the Gulf.
“They were certainly intrigued, I think all of America was was very anxious to to see the capsule land in the water,” Bridenstine said but acknowledged “it’s something that we need to do better next time.”
SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell said the private company was not in charge of clearing the area, that was up to the U.S. Coast Guard. For the next landing, Shotwell said they may need more resources.
“The lesson learned here is we probably need more Coast Guard assets, maybe some more SpaceX and NASA assets as well,” Shotwell said. “What’s important is that Bob and Doug got safely on the boat. We were able to keep the area clear for landing, and then ask people to move back as they came a little bit too close to the Dragon capsule, which they did.”
According to a statement from the U.S. Coast Guard sent to CBS News, the boaters ignored warnings to stay clear of the area.
“With limited assets available and with no formal authority to establish zones that would stop boaters from entering the area, numerous boaters ignored the Coast Guard crews’ requests and decided to encroach the area, putting themselves and those involved in the operation in potential danger.”
The Coast Guard also said the actions of the boaters Sunday, “were not representative of the average boating community.”
.@USCG statement on boaters surrounding @SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule after splashdown: "numerous boaters ignored the Coast Guard crews’ requests and decided to encroach the area, putting themselves and those involved in the operation in potential danger." pic.twitter.com/nwXuykhjvu— Miles Doran (@MilesDoran) August 3, 2020
However, Demo-2 was a test mission, it was the first time the spacecraft launched humans to the ISS and the first splashdown.
“This is the time that you go learn about these things and we’ll certainly be better prepared next time,” Shotwell said.