NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday after a historic, two-month-long mission.
Throngs of onlookers in leisure boats swarmed the landing site, putting themselves and others at risk, NASA officials said.
NASA, SpaceX, and the Coast Guard are working to establish new protocols for future water-based landings.
For the first time in 45 years, a NASA spacecraft safely splashed down in the ocean yesterday. But NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley—safely tucked inside their SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle—were greeted by a flotilla of private vessels before NASA and SpaceX officials could make it to the scene.
"That was not what we were anticipating," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a post-splashdown briefing. "It's something that we need to do better next time."
Had SpaceX's Crew Dragon been damaged upon reentry, or had its occupants been injured as they shot toward the Gulf, the crowd of onlookers could have impeded rescue efforts, officials said. Additionally, after a spacecraft lands, it sometimes releases noxious fumes like nitrogen tetroxide. By traveling so close to the vehicle, officials noted, the mariners put themselves in danger.
Coincidentally, during NASA's last splashdown in 1975, astronauts Tom Stafford, Vance Brand, and Deke Slayton were exposed to nitrogen tetroxide. A yellow haze flooded the capsule as the crew returned from the Apollo-Soyuz joint U.S.-Soviet Union space mission. They were immediately rushed to the hospital for treatment.
On July 29, the Coast Guard sent out a notice to mariners to stay away from the landing site, according to a Coast Guard statement. Additionally, the Coast Guard dispatched two cutters—an 87-foot patrol boat and a 45-foot response boat—to secure the landing site before Crew Dragon splashed down. And 2 hours before the scheduled splashdown, a radio broadcast reminded private vessels to clear the area.
But once the capsule hit the water, onlookers flooded in. In one shot from the NASA broadcast of the landing, a private vessel was seen motoring between the capsule and the SpaceX recovery boat. Russian cosmonaut Ivan Vagner, who is currently on the International Space Station, later shared an image taken of the splashdown site. Roughly a dozen boats can be seen speeding toward the capsule:
.@AstroBehnken и @Astro_Doug, I congratulate you on your successful return to Earth!
A few minutes after landing, the ISS flew over the #CrewDragon splashdown site in the Gulf of Mexico. pic.twitter.com/MZugsCt8tw
— Ivan Vagner (@ivan_mks63) August 2, 2020
"We had all of the clearance that was required at landing," Bridenstine said. "That capsule was in the water for a good period of time and the boats just made a beeline for it."
As SpaceX and NASA personnel approached the bobbing capsule, they reportedly shooed boaters away from the scene. "It was not really their job to police the area," SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said during the press briefing. "We had the Coast Guard out there for that."
The Coast Guard said it couldn't establish an official safety zone, which would allow the service to hold rule-breaking boaters legally accountable for scooting too close to the astronauts and their capsule, because the landing site was more than 12 nautical miles from shore and outside U.S. waterways.
However, while the Coast Guard technically has the legal authority to "board vessels and enforce laws" past the 12-nautical-mile perimeter, it would have needed more resources to do so.
"With limited assets available and 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 on the area, putting themselves and those involved in the operation in potential danger," the Coast Guard said in the statement.
Shortly after SpaceX and NASA personnel hoisted the capsule up onto the deck of the recovery boat, they detected traces of nitrogen tetroxide venting from the spacecraft—fortunately, not enough to pose a serious threat. Still, if a spacecraft has just traveled through Earth's atmosphere at roughly 16,000 miles per hour, you should definitely leave it alone.
"The lesson learned here is that 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."
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