There hasn’t been a splashdown of an American crewed space capsule since the Apollo capsule from the Apollo-Soyuz joint U.S.-Soviet Union space mission in 1975, at least not until yesterday, when astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley returned to Earth from the International Space Station in orbit, splashing down just off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. They were met by recovery teams, and, as an unexpected bonus, by a bunch of dipshits in private boats who got in the way of recovery operations and could have placed themselves in danger. Welcome to Florida!
The SpaceX recovery vessel Go Navigator was dispatched to recover the capsule, scorched from its cooking in the heat of reentry but otherwise undamaged. The capsule was floating in the water for about 30 minutes before being recovered, and during that time a number of private boats “made a beeline” for the capsule, according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
While it’s very easy to understand the temptation of wanting to get as close as possible to the capsule, it’s a real problem for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it interferes with the recovery teams, and there are real dangers to onlookers as capsules often vent toxic gases after splashing down.
In fact, the recovery team detected nitrous tetroxide — used as a propellant for the Dragon’s manoeuvring rockets — in the air around the capsule and as such had to wait for the fumes to dissipate before removing the astronauts.
In the video of the recovery, you can see an arc of pleasurecraft around the recovery operations:
One boat, in particular, has gained a lot of attention because of how close it got to the capsule and the prominent “TRUMP 2020″ flag it was flying:
A private boat with a Trump flag passed by SpaceX's Crew Dragon Endeavour as recovery teams attempt to secure the spacecraft, in what appears to be a serious violation of the splashdown zone's safety area. pic.twitter.com/kwbpAlYM9t
— Michael Sheetz (@thesheetztweetz) August 2, 2020
The Coast Guard had broadcast a Notice to Mariners about hazardous operations happening in those specified boundaries on July 29, though because the landing zone was past the 22 kilometre distance from the shore, the Coast Guard could not establish an official safety zone, according to a statement from the Coast Guard.
As a result of not being able to make an official safety zone that boaters could be forbidden from entering,
“… 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.”
So, while not strictly illegal, the actions of the boaters coming so close to the recovery efforts put everyone’s safety at risk and interfered with recovery operations.
NASA Administrator Bridenstine was understanding of the interest of the onlookers but made it clear this would need to be resolved in the future:
“I will tell you it’s a beautiful sunny day and a lot of boaters were out there and they were certainly intrigued. I think all of America was very anxious to see the capsule land in the water, but yeah, it’s something that we need to do better next time.”
Perhaps an official observers’ area could be set up, so the people who want to watch up close (which sure seems cool) could without getting in the way of doing anything stupid that puts everyone at risk?
Come on, boat-owning people. Don’t fuck up space travel for us.