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Boating dangers in SpaceX splashdown area

Posted August 4, 2020 4:59 p.m. EDT
Updated August 5, 2020 10:39 a.m. EDT

dozens of private vessels look on as crews recover the SpaceX Dragon Capsule

A flotilla of private boats descended on the area, eager to see the first American astronauts to return to Earth via splashdown in 45 years. While missions like Apollo 11 splashed down more than 750 nautical miles from Hawaii, Sunday's return of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule was only 30 nautical miles off the beaches of Pensacola, Florida.

Boaters may have gotten a selfie and a few stories to tell but they also put themselves, recovery crews and NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley in danger.


Noxious chemicals

The capsule's engines are fueled by Monomethyl Hydrazine (MMH) and Nitrogen Tetroxide (NTO) and oxidizer. NTO is hypergolic which means it does not require an external ignition source.

Combine the two and they explode. Direct that explosion in one direction and your spacecraft goes in the opposite direction.

Hypergolic fuels are also very nasty. Soviet rocket scientists nicknamed the "Devil's venom".

A Dragon Capsule was obliterated in April 2019 in an hypergolic fuel explosion. A valve on a NTO line leading to thrusters that would be used an emergency abort failed, leaking NTO which then came into contact with MMH.

If you watched coverage of the splashdown, you may have noticed crews handling unsafe levels of NTO. The hatch was not opened and the astronauts did not exit the capsule for more than an hour as crews donned protective gear and purged air surrounding hypergolic fuel tanks, both to ensure safety and to look for leaks.

curious recreational boaters arrive at the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft shortly after splashdown

Disrupting recovery operations

Recovering more than four tons of bobbing spacecraft is no simple task. The recovery ship and supporting boats approach carefully avoiding creating any more of a wake than necessary.

Boaters also passed between the recovery ship and the capsule, not only generally getting in the way, but also blocking camera views used by engineers back at SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California.

Russian Cosmonaut captured photos of the scene as he passed over aboard the International Space Station.


The capsule was slowed by four huge orange and white main parachutes, each with dozens of nylon cords attached. Crews attach buoys to the parachutes as they float on the surface near the capsule. This presents a navigation challenge to those recreational boaters.

Though the design was tested nearly 100 times, this Demo-2 mission was still a flight test. Parachutes are recovered for later analysis.

Recovery crews speed to the SpaceX Dragon capsule and four main chutes.

What will happen to these boaters?

Probably nothing.

The United States Coast Guard issued a Notice to Mariners (NOTAM) four days earlier warning of hazardous operations within the 10 nautical mile recovery zone. This was followed by radio warnings two hours before splashdown.

But a statement issued by Coast Guard Sunday evening noted that these warnings were "advisory in nature".

"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." said US Coast Guard Petty Officer John Michelli.

The 87-foot patrol boat USCGC Gannet was stationed just outside that zone along with 45-foot and 29-foot response boats in the area according to the statement.

"Without a duly established restricted area, the Coast Guard .. cannot issue fines or other violations to recreational boaters who encroached within the recovery zone." PO Michelli added.

The Coast Guard, NASA, and SpaceX, plan a "comprehensive review" of Sunday's events according to the statement.

It could happen here

While we wont see any landings off the Outer Banks. SpaceX capsule landings will occur off the coast of Florida at locations stretching from Jacksonville in the Atlantic to Pensacola in the Gulf of Mexico. Launch vehicle debris has made its way to North Carolina shores in the past.

In 2018, a 15-foot long section of payload fairing, jettisoned during a SpaceX launch more than an month earlier, washed ashore near Hatteras Village. Cape Hatteras National Seashore officials removed it from the beach with a front-end loader.

SpaceX cautions beachcombers to avoid any debris they find. The company asks that a description of the object and its location be reported to the SpaceX Recovery Hotline at 866-623-0234 or recovery@spacex.com. Any immediate hazards should be reported to local law enforcement.

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