For the first time since 1975, a NASA mission ended with a water landing. On Sunday, astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley took the SpaceX Crew Dragon pod from the International Space Station to a spot in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, the first time the Gulf had ever been used for a NASA water landing.
Unfortunately, the site wasn’t well-secured — perhaps because of the novelty of staging a water landing in a popular boating area — and over a dozen private boats showed up to gawk at the capsule, despite the fact that it’s just a floating hunk of metal and going to see it was actually pretty dangerous for everyone involved.
Poisonous fumes that built up around the capsule actually delayed the astronauts’ exit, and could have been very harmful to a boater who got too close. The glut of boats might also have impeded emergency operations, but thankfully neither scenario came to pass.
The Coast Guard did send an 87-foot patrol boat and 45-foot response boat to clear an area of 10 nautical miles four hours before the landing. It also sent out a radio message to boaters in the area warning them to steer clear of the area. But those efforts weren’t enough to stop the boats that converged on the site once the capsule, aided by four parachutes, floated down to the water.
— Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) August 2, 2020
Spokesperson Petty Officer Third Class John Michelli said the Coast Guard didn’t have the assets or formal authority to keep boaters out of the area. He also blamed the boaters themselves.
“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 message coming out of NASA was contrite and focused on doing better in the future.
“I think all of America was very anxious to see the capsule land in the water, but yeah, it’s something we need to do better next time,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
Next time could be as soon as late September, as NASA has already picked four astronauts to make the journey and, given that this mission went off without a hitch, SpaceX’s vehicles will likely to be certified for regular operational missions.