SpaceX Sticks the Landing


Finishing off a series of firsts Sunday, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico. It was the first splashdown in the Gulf and the first anywhere in more than 45 years. (Remember the mission? It was the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.)

This was officially a demonstration mission for final proving of the SpaceX launch system and manned capsule. Presumably, it puts the U.S. back in the manned launch business, something that’s been lacking since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011. The event enjoyed mildly enthusiastic live coverage on cable channels, but SpaceX and NASA both streamed the same live feed.

If the mission was anything but flawless, we haven’t heard about it yet. The Dragon capsule performed as expected—“nominal” in the droll vernacular of space flight—and the system appears ready for its next mission in September, launching four astronauts to the International Space Station.

Much is being made of SpaceX’s remarkable and rapid achievements and catching our breath here, it’s fair to ask if the hype is warranted. Yeah, it probably is, just on one factor alone. SpaceX is maintaining a blistering launch cadence and although it has been troubled by delays, it has already launched 10 missions in 2020 and at least a dozen more are planned. Compare that to arch competitor United Launch Alliance—a consortium of Lockheed Martin Space, Boeing Defense and Space & Security—who has launched half that number, with four more on the calendar for 2020.

With its troubled CST-100 Starliner, Boeing is still playing catch-up after a tarnished mission last December nearly resulted in a loss of the vehicle. It won’t fly again until early next year. Meanwhile, NASA has tentatively approved SpaceX to reuse the Crew Dragon for additional missions. The success of one and the struggle of the other couldn’t be more stark.

That’s not to say SpaceX and NASA achieved perfection here, at least in the coverage. When the mainstream press was interested in the Apollo program, we had the likes of Walter Cronkite or Jules Bergman overseeing the coverage and there was usually an astronaut on the set to provide accurate commentary. The modern version of this—which drew nearly 600,000 viewers according to the YouTube counter—has a couple of talking heads who appeared to be broadly knowledgeable but less so at times. One of the commentators kept confusing miles with kilometers and described the Florida panhandle as having “two sides.” Where I live in Florida, we call those coasts and the state itself is a peninsula. The panhandle is that skinny part at the top.

On social media, the commentators occasionally answered questions from the audience, which I thought was a nice touch. Watching the coverage, I got the impression they have a lot of visuals available, such as the spacecraft position and even live in-vehicle video feeds. But mainly all we saw was a wide shot of control room—a bunch of people looking at computer displays. This is minor stuff, but it’s a missed opportunity to generate more interest in the space program at a time when we can use all of the distractions we can get.   

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    • The physical act of launching and recovering a space vessel isn’t new, but the fact that it was accomplished entirely by a private company is more progress than you give it credit. This is actually a case of a private entity doing something cheaper and quicker than a government agency could do on its own (it had to, in order to win the contract), and it means NASA can focus on doing path finding missions and laying the groundwork for new areas of space exploration. And presumably, eventually contract that out to private entities as well.

  1. Congratulations, SpaceX and NASA!!! I agree with Paul’s comments about the stream leaving (some?) viewers wanting. For one, I would like to hear the talented Paul Berge’s commentary on the return to earth. His discussion with Paul Bertorelli on the earlier part of the mission was superb.

  2. This is not all about Space-X and NASA although they are the keys to the car that just arrived home.
    Its really about the USA and what a great country we have that allows private individuals to be involved in an effort of this type.
    Where we go as a county from here is our most important concern.
    Each of us needs to do our best to continue to make mankind the pinnacle of organisms we were obviously meant to be!
    GO USA. GO mankind only in the right and good direction!

  3. There was a glitch. Before re-entry, Doug’s iPad seemed to have trouble displaying his checklist. Other than that – perfect.
    I too was disappointed that the major networks didn’t even bother to show the splashdown. On the other hand, maybe that’s for the best. I’d rather see space flight become just as boring as any airline flight; boring, safe, and commonplace. Making every flight into a nail-biting, life or death experience keeps access to space limited to only a few brave souls. We can’t really begin to explore outside our planet until we begin to concentrate more on the destination than the journey.

  4. Does anyone know what all those small boats were surrounding the capsule at a distance. To me, they looked like ‘lookie-loos?’ I didn’t see any of them participating in any recovery activities.

    I was at Edwards AFB during all of the early Space Shuttle ALT test flights. The hugely interested public crowds were allowed onto the east edge of Rogers dry lake (on the Rocket Base side) and were enormous … especially on the first return from spaceflight. Landing in the ocean precludes such easy viewing so I’d have thought better coverage would have been provided. Still, after a 45 year hiatus … pretty cool to watch. BTW: LtGen Tom Stafford who was aboard the Apollo part of that test flight went on to almost immediately become Commander of the AF Flight Test Center at Edwards … now called the AF Test Center.

    • They were indeed onlookers. The splashdown was in international waters, so the Coast Guard didn’t really have any authority to do more than ask them to stay away, as they were not breaking any US laws by being there. I expect some rulemaking in the near future to make it illegal for unauthorized US vessels to be be being within some distance of space recovery operations, so that the Coast Guard can actually board and cite anyone getting that close.

      It’s for their own good. The recovery team was wearing protective gear for a reason: The hypergolic fuel that powers the capsules thrusters is extremely toxic and destructive to organic tissue. It can take hours before all residual fuel gasses dissipate. I don’t have much pity for people who blatantly ignored the Coast Guard’s requests to remain clear, but still, people might not know how much of a hazard it actually was.

      Not to mention how dangerous it would be if something *did* go wrong. The capsule still has full tanks of abort propellant onboard. It wouldn’t take much of a leak to seriously injure or kill anyone in the vicinity who didn’t have proper protective gear.

  5. In past vehicle splashdowns, the capsules came down well out to sea, beyond the practical reach of all but military vessels. Landing in the Gulf, even beyond the jurisdictional limits, will invite plenty of onlookers who have capable boats. Maybe SpaceX should borrow a page from rival Blue Origin’s playbook and switch to land based reentry. Still, the flight was a significant accomplishment and deserves congratulations. It is good to see the U.S. back in the space launch business for human transport.

  6. Paul, what Space X needs is a Vin Scully or Jim McKay personality to announce the progress of the ops. Knowing how Elon Musk and his teams operate, that is a probability. If that happens the flood of viewers/listeners will drive social media to new heights. Good article. Keep stirring the pot.