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 delivered astronauts to the International Space Station. And engineers had grappled with every potential danger in planning the mission. But even the brightest minds hadn’t envisaged one potential threat that came about as the mission unfolded. A deadly threat.

This was a mission of firsts. “Today we really made history. We are entering a new era of human spaceflight,” declared Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, at the news conference to mark the return to earth of the two astronauts – Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. The pair’s capsule safely touched down just off Florida in the Gulf of Mexico.

To start, this was the first time in the history of American space exploration that the Gulf had been used as the location for a successful landing. And this was the first time U.S. astronauts had been launched into space from home soil since the country retired its space shuttle program in 2011. But perhaps most significant of all was the commercial element to the mission.

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Never before had a private company – in this instance SpaceX – launched humans into orbit. Although the mission was conducted in unison with NASA – for the organization’s Commercial Crew Program – the hardware used was developed by SpaceX. No wonder the company’s president – Gwynne Shotwell – declared it “an extraordinary mission.”

Shotwell, who has a dual role as SpaceX’s chief operating officer, 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,” Shotwell stated.

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Started by famed entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX is a pioneering company. Now employing over 6,000 employees, the firm’s Dragon spacecraft – which carried Behnken and Hurley 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.

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And SpaceX’s ambitions – and those of NASA – are lofty in every sense of the word. 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 declared.

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This particular mission – officially labelled SpaceX Demo-2 – involved the launch of a fully commercially engineered spacecraft. The SpaceX Crew Dragon, with U.S. astronauts Robert ‘Bob’ Behnken and Douglas Hurley on board, set off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Saturday, May 30, 2020. The launch was facilitated by a Falcon 9 rocket.

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The objectives of the flight were clear: to demonstrate SpaceX’s ability to transport humans to the International Space Station. As part of that, the flight served to demonstrate the ability to launch a spacecraft that could travel in orbit of the earth before successfully docking at the International Space Station. After that, it had to show that it could return to earth safely.

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

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NASA’s own 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,” reads the text.

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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 stated. “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.” Plus Musk claimed that around “a hundred thousand people” had been involved in some way on the project, directly or indirectly.

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The launch of the SpaceX flight was clearly a seminal moment in the history of space travel. Yet it wasn’t without its hitches. In fact, the launch itself should have been three days early, but was postponed due to adverse weather conditions in Florida. So man may be able to fly into space, but controlling the weather right here on earth is another matter entirely.

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Yet on May 30 the spacecraft successfully took off from the Kennedy Space Center. And it docked at the International Space Station the very next day. But the arrival of Behnken and Hurley signaled just the start of their mission in space. Now the astronauts proceeded to live and work aboard what NASA describes as an “orbiting laboratory.”

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“Together, they [Behnken and Hurley] spent more than 100 hours assisting or conducting science and technology demonstrations on station,” stated the NASA website. 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.

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But now the two astronauts had to get home. As well as the first time taking people into space, this was going to be SpaceX Dragon’s maiden attempt at bringing them back to earth. No easy task. “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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Fortunately, Behnken and Hurley were safely returned to earth on August 2, 2020 after around two months in space. And the splashdown location of their capsule, which the crew had nicknamed ‘Endeavor’, was a site just off Pensacola, Florida. It had been identified as the safest option from seven possible landing sites.

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During the capsule’s return, it shed its 6,400-pound disposable trunk. It then reached the Earth’s atmosphere at an eye-watering speed of 17,500 miles an hour. During reentry the shuttle experienced drag, which slowed its speed to a mere 350 miles an hour. Parachutes then further slowed the capsule so 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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Well almost everything. So what, then, went wrong at this precise moment? Despite the shuttle having successfully been into space and back again, problems only actually arose when it returned to Earth. You would have thought of all the potential risks, handling those thrown at the mission by our very own planet would have been easier for engineers to plan for. But not so.

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So what were those risks, exactly? 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 political message in the form of “Trump.”

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It took NASA by surprise. “That was not what we were anticipating,” declared administrator Jim Bridenstine in a briefing that was held soon after the capsule’s return. “After they landed, the boats just came in. We need to do a better job next time for sure.”

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The landing had actually been a success up until that point. Yes, the capsule and crew faced no adverse effects on the way down. Plus 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 30 minutes. As planned.

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Bridenstine acknowledged some surprise at how the events 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.

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And it made the job of the recovery crew that little bit harder. SpaceX staff worked to disperse the boats and get access to the capsule, which they eventually did. Yet as the team worked to extract the astronauts from the capsule, boats were still hovering incredibly close. People were, of course, angling for a better view.

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But little did the unwitting observers on the boats know that they were putting themselves in danger. Serious danger. For surrounding the returned capsule were toxic fumes: fumes which had the potential to self-ignite or even kill a person if inhaled. Its mere presence, combined with the unwelcome pleasure craft, could have spelled disaster.

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Fortunately for all concerned, no tragedy unfolded. 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. It is a form of hypergolic fuel, meaning that it is self-igniting. A terribly unpredictable hazard in other words, though mainly in tight spaces.

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As an oxidizer, this nitrogen tetroxide can kill a person if inhaled in just a tiny amount as it fills the lungs with fluid. And as soon as the recovery boat approached the returned capsule it detected the presence of the oxidizer outside of the craft. So the recovery team purged the area and waited to extract the astronauts.

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But at the same time, the team did not have full control of the unwanted spectators who had sailed out to see the capsule. Nor did the U.S. Coast Guard. It could have been potentially life-threatening, despite the fact Steve Stich, manager of the Commercial Crew Program, declared the amounts “within limits.”

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Stich admitted that there was some kind of fault that led to the existence of 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.”

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And Bridenstine confirmed the sailors had come close to a potential 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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Plus the United States Coast Guard was also critical of events. “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 Coast Guard statement read.

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One of the astronauts even had some advice for the pleasure-seekers who had come 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,” the astronaut added. Sage words you might think.

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SpaceX president Gwynne 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. But at the same time, Shotwell confessed that there were always going to be these types of lessons with a first attempt.

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“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 is 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 people will behave when you return to Earth.

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But no doubt there were a few mistakes made. Indeed, during the airing of NASA’s live feed covering the landing, one SpaceX engineer admitted as much. “Maybe next time we shouldn’t announce our landing zone,” said Kate Tice. It was a valid point, especially as that landing zone was close enough to shore for boats to make it out there.

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As well as the risks that those on the boats created for themselves, there were potential risks to the astronauts. 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 is a press conference prior to the two astronauts’ return to earth.

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And Hurley spoke more about the support the recovery ship would offer. “We’ve got the flight surgeons on board that will be able to help us as well. So all those things are in place.” The water landing was NASA’s first experience of such a splashdown in nearly half a century: 45 years to be precise.

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Despite the problems that were encountered during splashdown, it was ultimately a successful trip and landing. The two astronauts had returned to earth, and it was mission accomplished for Demo-2. The scene is now set for SpaceX to carry out fully operational manned flights in future. And Boeing will also launch crewed missions, with the difference being that the company’s Starliner capsule will land on solid ground.

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So what of the astronauts themselves? 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, not to mention one proud six-year-old.

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But this is just the start, 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 programme. And then, of course, moving on to Mars,” she said. Exciting times ahead no doubt.

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