There were cheers in California and Florida mission control rooms when the SpaceX Dragon-2 capsule landed in the Atlantic during today’s historic test flight. But the mission wasn’t complete when the space capsule hit the water. For some of the SpaceX engineers, the work had just begun.
This was the first time that SpaceX’s recovery team deployed on the Go Searcher ocean vessel to recover a capsule that had returned from space. This is a pivotal moment in any space mission that end with a water landing, and it must be designed and rehearsed as much as any launch system.
Crew Dragon is on SpaceX’s recovery vessel—completing the spacecraft’s first test mission! pic.twitter.com/6K0qgnHd4O
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) March 8, 2019
According to NASA, the trip home started five hours after Dragon departed the space station, when SpaceX’s capsule conducted its 15-minute de-orbit burn. Just over a half -hour later, Dragon reentered Earth’s atmosphere, aero-braking to slow down, then popped two drogue parachutes. As the capsule grew closer to the planet, four main chutes bloomed overhead.
As soon as the capsule hit the waves, the recovery crew jumped into action. Two speedboats raced toward the landing area, splitting up as they grew closer. One headed to secure the capsule with some lines while the other started to recover the four main parachutes.
The Go Searcher is a registered cargo vessel, 50 meters long and 11 meters wide. The boat approached the capsule stern-first, backing up to get closer. The waves were minimal and the sun was shining, making it a good day for a test.
The crew connected a deck winch to the lines that the smaller boats attached to the capsule, and then started to reel in the Dragon like it’s a hooked marlin. A deck crane stands at the ready, gripping the capsule and hauling it on board. SpaceX planned the recovery to take “a half hour to an hour,” but today’s test took a little longer, although company officials didn’t report any specific difficulties.
— NASA Commercial Crew (@Commercial_Crew) March 8, 2019
There were no astronauts on board Dragon today, but the mission was a dress rehearsal for what to do if they were. Go Searcher has a medical bay where astronauts or other passengers will receive an immediate checkup. Medical personnel who will do this met the capsule today, but they deployed on a different ship called the Go Navigator. Typical launches would only be tended by the Go Searcher, but the additional staff on board necessitated a second ship, NASA officials say.
Although most astronaut recoveries are to be made fairly close to shore—the capsule will take 30 hours to come to port after today’s test flight—Go Searcher is designed for longer times at sea. The ship’s crew and freshly arrives passengers can live onboard for weeks if they need to. There’s a helicopter pad on the ship in case of emergencies or to satisfy a customer who doesn’t want to wait.
The seaworthiness of the ship speaks to a client base that is wider than just NASA. Soon, SpaceX will be offering rides to anyone in the world who wants to go into space. Go Searcher and ships like her may be appearing in places other than the Florida coast, and fetching capsules on missions that have nothing to do with NASA. Let the new age begin.