SpaceX Proposes Recovering Dragon Spacecraft in Gulf of Mexico

Dragon capsule after recovery. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX has proposed recovering Dragon spacecraft in the Gulf of Mexico as a contingency option to recovering them in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

“With the introduction of the [commercial crew program], the ability to return crew to Earth in a safe and timely manner is extremely important, particularly in cases where human life or health may be in jeopardy,” according to a draft environmental assessment published by the FAA.

“The purpose of the Proposed Action is to therefore establish an additional Dragon-2 splashdown option,” the report stated. “The Proposed Action is needed as the additional option further ensures that a secondary splashdown option is available to missions planned to splashdown in either the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans, which would provide the returning crew with a timely and safe return to Earth.”

Dragon landing areas in the Gulf of Mexico. (Credit: SpaceX)

The Gulf of Mexico would serve as a backup in the event of severe weather in the planned recovery area. Under the proposal, the FAA would issue reentry license that would authorize SpaceX to conduct up to six Dragon recovery operations there.

The company has been recovering cargo Dragon spacecraft in the Pacific Ocean off Baja California.

The Drago-2 crew system will have eight SuperDraco engines as part of its launch abort system and 16 Draco reaction control system engines for maneuvering in space.

“The propulsion system uses nitrogen tetroxide (NTO) and monomethylhydrazine (MMH) propellant combination because of its hypergolic ignition and long term in-orbit storage benefits,” the report stated. “The Dragon-2 could contain up to 4,885 pounds of propellant which includes 3,004 pounds of NTO and 1,881 pounds of MMH.

“The pressurization subsystem, which uses gaseous helium, is separated between the oxidizer and fuel to prevent propellant migration reactions,” the assessment added. “The Dragon propellant storage is designed to retain residual propellant preventing release into seawater upon splashdown.”

Dragon spacecraft would be recovered using a 160-foot ship with a heli-deck. The crew would egress the vehicle after it was brought aboard the ship.

SpaceX has a different plan for the Dragon’s trunk, which is used to carry unpressurized cargo to the space station.

“At the conclusion of each Dragon-2 mission, the trunk would be left in orbit. For cargo (Dragon-1) missions, the trunk falls through Earth’s atmosphere and burns up,” according to the report.

It’s not clear whether SpaceX has plans to fly the trunk with instruments or experiments. Or it could be an issue of not wanting to expend fuel to de-orbit it.

  • Michael Halpern

    Dragon trunk gets burned up in atmosphere seperated just prior to re-rentry its basically a garbage can at that point and will be used as such

  • Steve Ksiazek

    I see that blue line, and I’m thinking that’s exactly the area I don’t want the Dragon capsule to come down. While landing close to shore is convenient for SpaceX, it seems that would put all sorts of stuff at risk if they missed their target. I certainly wouldn’t want them coming down anywhere close to NOLA. Same with the west coast of Florida.

  • duheagle

    You do, I hope, get that the requested landing zone is inside the closed blue line and not between the blue line and the shore.

    Dragons have returned from orbit a dozen times and none has ever been off course. Even an off course Dragon that strayed over land, though, wouldn’t do much damage unless its chutes also failed. In the case of Dragon 2, both the chutes and the SuperDracos would have to fail.

    As you seem to be an avid collector of hyper-low-probability “disaster” scenarios, I wonder whether you are also an agoraphobe. Of course even if you never leave your house, an errant Dragon could still drop on you like Dorothy Gale’s house.

  • duheagle

    The Dragon 2 trunk will be covered in solar cells so SpaceX could definitely peddle opportunities for missions of modest to significant length involving payloads that stay with the trunk and run on the non-trivial available juice. That’s especially so given that Dragon 1’s trunk capacity has often been only fractionally used for ISS-bound cargo.

    The trunk has no ability, once detached from the Dragon 2 capsule, to control its attitude – atleast for now. That would impose some mission design limitations. But there are plenty of easily imaginable missions that would be attitude agnostic. And, who knows, maybe SpaceX would borrow the thruster technology used to orient payload fairing halves for de-orbiting to give Dragon 2 trunks independent attitude control. That will likely be a matter decided by customer demand.

    Given the relatively low altitude of ISS, trunks left in orbits just below it would likely last no more than a year or two given their considerable surface area to mass ratio.

    Could be a nice little extra income stream there for the folks at 1 Rocket Road. Reminds one a bit of what is said about the Chinese anent chickens – “They eat every part of the bird except the feathers and the cackle.”

  • Steve Ksiazek

    My thinking is that there is plenty of Marine traffic and other obstacles close to shore. If you are planning a water landing, how about aiming for that huge area where there is nothing else around.

    It was SpaceX’s decision to not try landing on solid ground. Probably because that would add another year or two before they are ready. I’m not worried about space objects falling on me. That’s because they are normally de-orbited over the huge open area of the Pacific.

  • Paul451

    The trunk has no ability, once detached from the Dragon 2 capsule, to control its attitude […] maybe SpaceX would borrow the thruster […] to give Dragon 2 trunks independent attitude control

    If the payload operator cares, they can add reaction-wheels. If there was enough demand, SpaceX could create a standard kit, installed on demand, rather than something permanently built into the trunk.

  • Paul451

    My thinking is that there is plenty of Marine traffic and other obstacles close to shore.

    That “blue zone” isn’t the size of the recovery area required for each flight. Prior to parachute deployment, Dragon is already capable of aiming for a few square kilometres. So even if the parachutes fail and it plows in, it’ll hit a known and predictable exclusion zone. Landing will be no different than launch.

    I’m not worried about space objects falling on me. That’s because they are normally de-orbited over the huge open area of the Pacific.

    OTOH, both STS orbiters broke up over land. Because every single orbiter re-entered over land.

    It was SpaceX’s decision to not try landing on solid ground.

    Actually it was NASA’s decision not to allow them to use cargo flights to qualify the recovery systems.

    But how would your fear of Dragon landing on someone have been assuaged by a land-landing? Show me an area on land as large as that Blue Zone that is completely devoid of human activity.

  • SamuelRoman13

    Challenger broke up over the Atlantic. Most Shuttle flights as I remember, reentered over the Pacific , Panama area and Fl. area. A few times it flew over my house.That is land,if you want to call that reentry, but it started over the Pacific.

  • ThomasLMatula

    It was NASA’s decision to place unreasonable certification requirements on Dragon2 which makes it less economic to use for commercial markets. Indeed, I imagine when the full story is told that will probably be why it took almost a decade to develop Dragon2. It is also why he is now focusing on BFR which will be a NASA free system.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Elon Musk has abandoned the Dragon and the whole “spam in the can” approach to HSF that is now in fashion. He learned what he needed and is focused now on building the first spaceship – the BFR.

  • Jeff2Space

    It would be trivial to add an attitude control kit to the Dragon 2 trunk. If I were tasked with such, I’d base it on whatever attitude control system will be used on the SpaceX Starlink satellites. This commonality would reduce development and manufacturing costs, especially when you consider how many Starlink satellites SpaceX plans to produce.

    Such a tiny task would have zero impact on BFR.

  • duheagle

    The Pacific is a big place so I guess all the Shuttle re-entries probably did start somewhere over it. For landings at Edwards, the whole re-entry took place over the Pacific. But for KSC landings, the Shuttle did the hottest parts of its re-entry over CONUS. Columbia spread itself over most of the state of Texas, for example.

  • duheagle

    That would probably make the reaction wheels the majority of the mass of a payload so-equipped. I think there’s a tail/dog issue here.

  • Paul451

    Reaction wheels are more mass-efficient than thrusters over any reasonable time period.

  • Christopher James Huff

    You could add a Starlink laser transceiver too, avoiding the need for ground comms and all the involved licensing and infrastructure.

    However, there’s going to be a *lot* more Starlink launches than Dragon 2 launches. I think they’re a lot more likely to sell slots on Starlink launches, or space in Starlink node equipment bays.

  • windbourne

    in fact, I would be concerned about all the oil rigs out there. Lots of abandoned oil platforms out there.

  • duheagle

    But they are also prone to durability problems.

  • Paul451

    So are thrusters. Hard limited by fuel capacity.

    And reaction wheels aren’t likely to cause problems over the one year or so that the trunk would remain in orbit.

  • Christopher James Huff

    Some are. A large number of reaction wheels have flown without ever experiencing any problems, and a lot of the failed ones have been from the same manufacturer, Ithaco Space Systems. The durability problems are likely due to design shortcomings rather than fundamental issues with reaction wheels.