When SpaceX Launched Its First Manned NASA Flight, The Engineers Didn’t Expect This Potential Danger

The launch of SpaceX’s Demo-2 test flight was a truly history-making event. It was the first time a commercially constructed and operated spacecraft had taken astronauts to the International Space Station. And engineers had grappled with every potential danger in planning the mission. Or so they thought. Even the brightest minds hadn’t envisaged one threat that came about as the mission unfolded. A potentially deadly threat, too.

This was a mission of firsts. It was the first time in the history of American space exploration that the Gulf of Mexico had been used as the location for a landing. It was also the first time that U.S. astronauts had launched into space from home soil since 2011, when the nation had retired its space shuttle program. But perhaps most significant of all was the commercial element to the mission. And it’s possible that this final factor contributed to the dangers the astronauts faced on their return to Earth.

Never before had a private company – in this instance, SpaceX – launched humans into orbit. Yes, while the mission was conducted in unison with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the hardware used was developed by SpaceX. No wonder, then, that the company’s president Gwynne Shotwell declared the operation “extraordinary.”

Shotwell, who has a dual role as both SpaceX’s chief operating officer and president, was effusive in her praise for the mission. “This is really just the beginning. We are starting the journey of bringing people regularly to and from low Earth orbit, then onto the moon and then ultimately onto Mars,” she stated. Those are some big ambitions, and we can only hope that they haven’t been too badly dented by the events that took place off Florida’s coast.

As you probably know, SpaceX was started by famed entrepreneur Elon Musk. A pioneering company, it now employs over 6,000 people. And the firm’s Dragon spacecraft, which carried two astronauts into space, is a special feat of engineering. “It is the only spacecraft currently flying that is capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth and is the first private spacecraft to take humans to the space station,” SpaceX’s own website declares of Dragon.

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But it’s not only SpaceX that has lofty ambitions – NASA does too. In fact, the space agency’s administrator Jim Bridenstine summed up the objectives of the program in a statement shortly after lift-off. “The launch of this commercial space system designed for humans is a phenomenal demonstration of American excellence and is an important step on our path to expand human exploration to the Moon and Mars,” he remarked.

This particular mission – officially labelled SpaceX Demo-2 – involved the launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon, which would be facilitated by a Falcon 9 rocket. And so, as hairs stood on end and goosebumps appeared on arms, the craft lifted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Saturday, May 30, 2020. U.S. astronauts Robert ‘Bob’ Behnken and Douglas Hurley were both on board.

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The objective of the flight was clear: show that SpaceX can transport humans to the International Space Station. That meant being able to launch a spacecraft that could orbit Earth before successfully docking at the station. And, crucially, Crew Dragon had to prove that it could also safely bring those same humans back to terra firma.

As the name would suggest, SpaceX Demo-2 was the second test flight of the Crew Dragon. However, it was the first with actual astronauts on board, making the occasion a landmark one. And the launch was part of a greater objective for SpaceX: to achieve certification under the NASA Commercial Crew Program for future trips to the International Space Station.

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NASA’s website stated the bold intentions of the project. “[The] Commercial Crew Program (CPP) was formed to facilitate the development of a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station and low Earth orbit.” We told you they were aiming high.

SpaceX’s enigmatic founder, Musk, spoke with clear pride after the launch. “This is a dream come true for me and everyone at SpaceX,” he said. “It is the culmination of an incredible amount of work by the SpaceX team, by NASA and by a number of other partners in the process of making this happen.” Musk also claimed that around “100,000 people” had been involved in some way on the project – either directly or indirectly.

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So, the launch of the SpaceX flight was clearly a seminal moment in the history of space travel. But it wasn’t without its hitches. In fact, the launch should have happened three days earlier, but it was ultimately postponed owing to adverse weather conditions in Florida. Man may be able to travel to space, but controlling the weather right here on Earth is another matter entirely.

Thankfully, on May 30, 2020, the spacecraft successfully took off from the Kennedy Space Center. It also docked at the International Space Station the very next day. But the arrival was just the start of Behnken and Hurley’s mission in space. Now the astronauts would live and work aboard what NASA describes as an “orbiting laboratory.”

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As well as installing research equipment, the two astronauts added self-shot photographs to a project known as the Crew Earth Observations study, among other tasks. “Together, [Behnken and Hurley] spent more than 100 hours assisting or conducting science and technology demonstrations on station,” the NASA website explained.

Once their tasks were done, however, the two astronauts had to get home. And while SpaceX Dragon had successfully taken people into space on its maiden voyage, could it bring them back to Earth? That was no easy feat. “From the laws of physics standpoint, we’re only halfway done,” former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman told The Verge before the astronauts returned. “All that energy you put in [during launch], you have to take every bit of that energy out when you come home.”

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The splashdown location of the astronauts’ capsule, which the crew had nicknamed “Endeavor,” was a site just off Pensacola, Florida. This had been identified as the safest option from seven possible landing sites. And on August 2, 2020, after around two months in space, Behnken and Hurley reached the Earth’s atmosphere at an eye-watering speed of 17,500 miles an hour. So, how do you get something that is essentially free-falling to slow down?

Well, during the capsule’s return, it shed its 6,400-pound disposable trunk. Then, upon reentry, the shuttle experienced drag, which took its speed down to a mere 350 miles an hour. Parachutes then further slowed the capsule so that it could safely land in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Everything had gone perfectly to plan. Or had it?

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Despite the shuttle having successfully been into space and back again, problems only actually arose when it returned to Earth. You would have thought that of all the potential risks, handling those thrown at the mission by our very own planet would have been the easiest for engineers to anticipate and accommodate. But, apparently, that’s not the case…

So what went wrong at this precise moment? In one word: people. To those watching the landing on television – and there were many – it must have been an incredibly surprising sight to see the returned capsule almost immediately surrounded by pleasure boats. Lots of them. One was even able to display a flag in support of Donald Trump.

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Given that this was, for all intents and purposes, a commercial exercise, an argument could be made that this level of attention should have been expected. But it certainly took NASA by surprise. “That was not what we were anticipating,” administrator Jim Bridenstine declared in a briefing that was held soon after the capsule’s return. “After they landed, the boats just came in.”

The landing had actually been a success up until that point. The crew had, fortunately, faced no adverse effects on the way down. The U.S. Coast Guard had reportedly cleared the declared landing zone without issue, too. And the predetermined recovery ship, Go Navigator, was on the scene within roughly half an hour. All exactly as planned.

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No one had anticipated the sheer number of craft that would flock to the area, though. And Bridenstine later admitted some surprise at how events had unfolded. “That capsule was in the water for a good amount of time, and those boats just made a beeline for it. There are things that we’re going to look at, that we need to do better at, for sure,” he added. But the rubberneckers weren’t the only thing making the recovery crew’s job harder than expected.

SpaceX staff eventually managed to disperse the onlookers and get access to the capsule. As the team worked to extract the astronauts from the capsule, however, boats were still hovering incredibly close by. People were, of course, angling for a better view. But little did the unwitting observers know that they were putting themselves in danger. Serious danger.

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You see, toxic fumes surrounded the returned capsule. And these fumes had the potential to self-ignite or even kill a person if inhaled. This unexpected occurrence, combined with the unwelcome pleasure craft, could have spelled disaster to the recovery crew, astronauts and the people aboard the surrounding boats. But where had these dangerous gases come from?

Well, the toxic substance detected is actually used as a propellant for the capsule as it descends into Earth’s orbit. Brown in appearance, it is nitrogen tetroxide, or sometimes nitrogen peroxide. And to up the ante even further, it is a form of hypergolic fuel, meaning that it is self-igniting. A terribly unpredictable hazard, in other words.

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Nitrogen tetroxide can even kill a person if only a tiny amount is inhaled, as it causes fluid to build up in the lungs. And as soon as the recovery boat approached the returned capsule, it detected the presence of the oxidizer outside of the craft. The recovery team purged the area, then, and bided their time before attempting to extract the astronauts.

But the team did not have full control of the unwanted spectators who had sailed out to see the capsule. Nor, for that matter, did the U.S. Coast Guard. It could have been a potentially life-threatening situation, even though Steve Stich, manager of the Commercial Crew Program, declared the quantity of fumes to be “within limits.”

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Stich admitted that some kind of fault had contained the substance around the outside of the capsule. “We think there may be some mechanism where it’s getting trapped into the service section from thruster firings during entry,” the NASA manager said. “We’ll go figure out a way to handle it better on the next flight, perhaps starting with a purge as soon as we get on the vehicle.”

Fortunately for all concerned, no tragedy unfolded. But Bridenstine confirmed that the uninvited sailors had diced with danger. “What is not common is having passersby approach the vehicle close range with nitrogen tetroxide in the atmosphere. That’s not something that is good,” the NASA administrator said. “And we need to make sure that we’re warning people not to get close to the spacecraft in the future.”

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The U.S. Coast Guard also criticized the errant sailors. “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,” a statement from the service read.

Even the astronauts chastised the pleasure-seekers who had sailed too close to the returned capsule. “Just a word to the wise for folks who have ideas of coming that close again in the future,” Behnken stated, “We take extreme precautions to make sure it is safe, and we do that for a reason.” Words of wisdom, don’t you think?

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And SpaceX president Shotwell acknowledged that there were improvements to be made for next time. “The lesson learned here is that we probably need more Coast Guard assets – and maybe more SpaceX and NASA assets as well,” Shotwell said. At the same time, though, she confessed that there were always going to be issues during a first attempt.

“This was a demonstration mission,” Shotwell conceded. “This is the time that you go learn about these things, and we’ll certainly be better prepared next time.” It’s hard to argue with that logic. And as so often proves in life, people are the unpredictable factor in so many scenarios. You can plan a mission to space, but you cannot plan for how folks will behave when you return to Earth.

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Certainly, there were a few mistakes made. And during NASA’s live feed covering the landing, SpaceX engineer Kate Tice admitted as much when she offered, “Maybe next time we shouldn’t announce our landing zone.” It was a valid point, especially as that landing zone was close enough to shore for boats to make it out there.

As well as the risks posed to themselves, the people aboard the boats created a potentially life-threatening situation for the astronauts. You see, even before starting their return journey, Behnken and Hurley were well aware that any delay in getting the recovery boat to the capsule could have been catastrophic. “The ground teams are fully aware of the challenges of the water landing and what it does to the human body,” Hurley said.

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And since this water landing was NASA’s first experience of such a splashdown in nearly half a century – 45 years, to be precise – you could understand if there were some butterflies in those bellies. But Hurley seemed confident that everything was as prepared as possible, adding, “We’ve got the flight surgeons on board that will be able to help us as well. So all those things are in place.” They just didn’t account for the human factor.

But all’s well that ends well. Despite the problems that were encountered during splashdown, it was ultimately a successful trip and landing. “Today we really made history. We are entering a new era of human spaceflight,” Bridenstine said at the news conference to mark the return to Earth of the two astronauts.

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Yes, it was mission accomplished for Demo-2. That means the scene is now set for SpaceX to carry out fully operational manned flights in the future. And it won’t be the only private company to do so. Boeing will also launch crewed missions, although its Starliner capsule is planned to ultimately land on solid ground.

You may be wondering what the astronauts themselves thought of the experience. Well, they were just happy to be coming home. “We’re really excited to see our families,” Behnken said, speaking while still in space. “My son is six years old, and I can tell from the videos that I get, talking to him on the phone, that he’s changed a lot – even in the couple of months that we’ve been up here.” It must have been an emotional reunion with one very proud six-year-old.

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However, this is only the beginning, as Shotwell confirmed. “Today is a great day. We should celebrate what we all accomplished here, bringing Bob and Doug back, but we should also think about this as a springboard to doing even harder things with the Artemis program. And then, of course, moving on to Mars,” she said. To infinity and beyond, indeed. But just how did Elon Musk and SpaceX reach this momentous milestone?

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