It was an unprecedented sight: A SpaceX capsule — the first to carry NASA astronauts  — bobbing in the Gulf of Mexico, surrounded by private boaters, one of them bearing a flag supporting President Donald Trump.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour splashed down off the coast of Pensacola, Florida Sunday (Aug. 2), returning astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to Earth after their historic Demo-2 test flight. But shortly after that splashdown, private boats swarmed the space capsule, apparently hoping for a closer look. 

“That was not what we were anticipating,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a post-splashdown briefing. “After they landed, the boats just came in. We need to do a better job next time for sure.”

Full coverage: SpaceX’s historic Demo-2 Crew Dragon astronaut test flight

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SpaceX hoists the Demo-2 Crew Dragon capsule Endeavour from the Gulf of Mexico while private boaters watch nearby off the coast of Pensacola, Florida on Aug. 2, 2020.

(Image credit: NASA TV)
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Private boaters, one bearing a Trump flag, approach close to SpaceX's Demo-2 Crew Dragon capsule carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley shortly after its splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the Pensacola, Florida coast on Aug. 2, 2020.

(Image credit: NASA TV)
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This aerial view of SpaceX's Demo-2 Crew Dragon capsule recovery shows a ring of private boaters around the spacecraft shortly after splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida on Aug. 2, 2020.

(Image credit: NASA TV)

NASA TV views of the Crew Dragon showed many recreational boaters encroaching on SpaceX’s recovery zone, some of them floating quite close to the capsule. One of the boats prominently displayed a Trump flag as it circled the capsule. 

Bridenstine said the U.S. Coast Guard did clear the landing zone ahead of the splashdown, and the landing itself had no issues. The SpaceX recovery ship Go Navigator recovered the capsule about 30 minutes after splashdown, but not before the private boats arrived.

“That capsule was in the water for a good amount of time and those boats just made a beeline for it,” Bridenstine said. “There are things that we’re going to look at, that we need to do better at, for sure.”

SpaceX recovery crews in fast boats worked to push back the encroaching boaters. Still, the private boats could be seen in an arc around SpaceX’s Go Navigator as the retrieval team plucked the capsule from the sea. 

“The lesson learned here is that we probably need more Coast Guard assets,and maybe more SpaceX and NASA assets as well,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in the post-splashdown briefing. “This was a demonstration mission. This is the time that you go learn about these things, and we’ll certainly be better prepared next time.”

SpaceX launched the Demo-2 mission May 30, sending Behnken and Hurley to the International Space Station on a two-month shakedown cruise for the spacecraft. The mission, a crewed demonstration flight that followed a 2019 unpiloted test flight to the station, marked the final trial before SpaceX begins operational crewed flights for NASA in late September. 

SpaceX is one of two commercial companies with multi-billion-dollar contracts to fly astronauts to and from the space station for NASA. The other company, Boeing, will use its own capsule Starliner, which is designed to land on land.

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