SpaceX Rehearses Helicopter Landing at Sea

GO Searcher ship. (Credit: NASA)

When astronauts splash down into the ocean after their journey to the International Space Station on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, recovery teams must be able to transport them to land quickly. In the unlikely event of an astronaut medical emergency, SpaceX has outfitted its recovery ship, GO Searcher, with a medical treatment facility and a helipad in the center of the vessel.

Recently the company completed helicopter landing and patient loading rehearsals on the ship, practicing how the helicopter will pick up astronauts and fly them to a nearby hospital.

GO Searcher rehearsal. (Credit: NASA)

The aircraft will also serve to carry doctors and paramedics to care for the astronauts. This will allow the SpaceX medical team to provide the best possible care to astronauts on the ship, in-flight, and get them safely to a hospital.

In a normal scenario, Crew Dragon will splash down off of Florida’s eastern coast. GO Searcher is equipped with a crane to lift the capsule out of the water and onto the main deck of the ship. NASA and SpaceX doctors will work together to evaluate the crew onboard the vessel. From there, GO Searcher will head for Cape Canaveral, Florida, where SpaceX teams will take the astronauts to a nearby airport for transport back to Houston.

GO Searcher rehearsal (Credit: NASA)

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is working with Boeing and SpaceX to begin launching astronauts from American soil for the first time since 2011. The goal of the program is safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from the International Space Station from the United States. Commercial transportation to and from the space station will enable expanded station use, additional research time and broader opportunities of discovery aboard the orbiting laboratory.

  • Jeff Smith

    It’s interesting to think through the end-to-end astronaut problem when you have to price it out yourself and you can’t rely on the nearly unlimited resources of a US Navy to cover certain functions. Do you NEED a helicopter? How big of a boat do you need? Do you need a boat at all? Is landing at an airport (Shuttle/Dream Chaser) a big enough benefit to drive the design? How much do Starliner airbags effect that?

    All good problems to have!

  • ReSpaceAge

    Will Orion still get the aircraft carrier treatment? We wouldn’t want Lockheed Martin to have to spend any extra I would think?
    I seem to recall the Navy plucking the Orion test article out of the drink.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The U.S. Navy will need to use a LSD as the Orion is too heavy to lift on to a modern aircraft carrier. Instead they will tow it to the ramp used for the large hovercraft that operate from LSD. But if the Admiral decides to take his task force to sea it will include a LHD as part of the fleet 🙂

  • ThomasLMatula

    Pity NASA just doesn’t have any trust in this new fangled idea of landing a Dragon2 on land. But I guess if ocean landings were safe enough for astronauts in grandpappy’s day, its good enough now. Beside’s it fits with NASA recreation of the Saturn V era.

    BTW I read somewhere that the reason SpaceX will have to provide new untested Dragon2 capusles for each flight is because NASA has no procedure for cretifying Dragon2’s that have flown to space as safe. Anyone know if this has changed any?

  • ThomasLMatula

    How much do you want to bet NASA will have a U.S. Navy ship or two lurking near by when the Dragon2 lands in water, just in case its needed?

  • Jeff Smith

    If I were NASA, I’d have an extra SAR crew on standby for both SpaceX and Boeing the first few times! They might be THEIR spaceships, but if they’re YOUR astronauts – it pays to be paranoid.

  • Jeff Smith

    While NASA may be the customer, as a private company, SpaceX can spend their own money and prove any technology they want. Sounds a perfect use for Cargo D2s!

    I doubt the problem is that “NASA” can’t recertify them – since they are already allowing D1s to be reused for cargo. Sounds more like the D2 isn’t waterproof enough yet to withstand the dunking. Same thing happened with the early D1 flights, but the SpaceX team figured how to keep the water out as time went on.

  • Jeff Smith

    I bet it’s cheaper that way AND the Navy likes it better that way too! During Vietnam (Apollo) the Navy came to complain quite a bit about the having to task one of their carriers with a non-Navy/non-military mission. Supercarriers are a pricey asset to tie up in the middle of an ocean, which is exactly where you want to recover astronauts, but the furthest point from where they usually conduct their operations.

  • Lee

    The carriers that recovered the Apollo capsules weren’t “Supercarriers”. They were the older carriers like Hornet, Essex, and Yorktown. In almost all the later missions, they weren’t carriers at all, but amphibious assault ships like the Okinawa.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    According to NSF forum chatter.

    The problem isn’t NASA have no re-certification procedure for Dragon 2 dunked in salt water.

    It is the cost of the paperwork in money and HR to do the re-certification.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I wold imagine a LHD, LPD (like USS San Antonio), could do the job. If DDG’s had a swing out crane, they could hoist capsules to the helipad. No real need to use overly capital equipment even though an LHD is capital equipment, but it’s a lot cheaper than a CVN.

  • Lee

    As I noted above, most Apollo recoveries were not done by carriers. NONE were done by a CVN. The current America class would work fine for this purpose.

  • mattmcc80

    That dichotomy always amused me. For the EFT-1 recovery they used the USS Anchorage, a $1.6 billion LPD, one of the most expensive non-nuclear craft in the US Navy.

    SpaceX recovers their cargo Dragons with a repurposed 20 year old tugboat.

  • Michael Halpern

    The Essex class was still considered a fleet carrier, also Yorktown is bad example, she sank in a battle that took out several Japanese carriers

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    How many CVs are left? One? If not now, soon, they’ll all be CVNs. Unless you go to them, no space mission will rate a CVN going to a capsule.

  • ThomasLMatula

    That was the first, this is the second U.S.S. Yorktown, the one that is a museum ship in Charleston, SC. Also not all Essex class carriers were fleet carriers. The ones used had been converted to ASW and so carried a lot more helicopters as part of their air wing.

  • ThomasLMatula

    None, the Navy only has CVNs. But they don’t carry the same complement of helicopters like the LHDs carry, which is why they won’t be used.

  • Michael Halpern

    By size they were fleet carriers, even if they were fitted with helicopters

  • ThomasLMatula

    Except who needs Cargo D2s when NASA runs the only space station. That is why Elon Musk has moved on beyond Dragon.

  • ThomasLMatula

    But they don’t have their own SAR for the Soyuz, despite some of the experiences the Russians crews have had waiting be to found. Good old double standard 🙂

  • duheagle

    The last CV in service was the Kitty Hawk. She was decommissioned in 2009. All 10 of the Nimitz’s are still in service as is the Gerald R. Ford, lead ship of the Nimitz successor class. Two more Fords, the John F. Kennedy and Enterprise are building and an additional two are on order. The first CVN, Enterprise, was decommissioned last year after well over a half-century of service.