Dragon is a free-flying spacecraft designed to deliver both cargo and people to orbiting destinations. It is the only spacecraft currently flying that is capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth. The Dragon vehicle has two variants, cargo, and crew. Both capsules return to Earth and splashdown in the Atlantic ocean. SpaceX uses a fleet of ships to recover and return the capsules to land for re-use.
Dragon 1 flew from 2010 to 2020, resupplying the International Space Station under a contract with NASA. The crew variant of Dragon 2 first flew during its demonstration mission in March 2019. A cargo variant of Dragon 2 will fly for the first time in October 2020. Dragon is recovered by ships GO Searcher and GO Navigator.
Dragon One Recovery
From 2010 to 2020, Dragon 1 flew to and from International Space Station supplying it with resources and equipment. The Dragon capsule was, and still is, unique among other currently-flying spacecraft in that it can return a large amount of cargo back to Earth. SpaceX deployed a recovery ship named NRC Quest to retrieve the capsule and its cargo from the Pacific Ocean, following splashdown.
NRC Quest is a platform supply vessel that was modified by SpaceX to Dragon recovery operations. The vessel has a crane, communications equipment and a lifting frame that allows it to recover the capsule from the water.
Ahead of splashdown, NRC Quest was dispatched from the Port of Los Angeles and waited near the pre-determined landing zone. After Dragon landed, the ship moved in to recover the capsule. Smaller fast-approach vessels were deployed to collect the parachutes from the ocean surface and assist in manoeuvring the capsule.
As soon as the capsule was recovered, NRC Quest would immediately sail towards the the Port of Los Angeles so that the experiments can be quickly handed over to NASA.
Following the retirement of Dragon 1 and the start of Dragon 2 operations, SpaceX decided to move all splashdowns to the Atlantic Ocean.
NRC Quest is the sole support ship based on the West Coast. The ship was used to support booster landings on Just Read the Instructions as well as recovering the Dragon 1 capsule. The ship has been used by SpaceX since 2015, recovering Dragon 15 times and supporting 7 booster landings.
Photo: Matt Hartman
Dragon Two Recovery
Dragon 2, the successor of Dragon 1, is a spacecraft with two variants, cargo and crew. The crew variant first flew in March 2019 for an uncrewed test flight. The first crewed flight is due to take place in May 2020. The cargo variant of Dragon 2 is scheduled to fly for the first time in October 2020.
After a stay at the International Space Station, the capsule will descend back to Earth and splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. Two ships will then recover the capsule and crew. GO Searcher and GO Navigator are two identical platform supply vessels equipped with a medical treatment facility, helipad, lifting frame and various control systems.
Under NASA requirements, recovery crews must be able to egress astronauts onto the recovery ship in the 60 minutes following splashdown, in all conditions. GO Searcher first demonstrated SpaceX’s ability to do this during a recovery trial in February 2018.
Under normal circumstances, astronauts will be recovered and travel back to Port Canaveral on board the recovery ship. In the event of a medical emergency, a helicopter will land and transport the astronauts back to land faster. GO Searcher and GO Navigator both have a medical treatment to accommodate astronauts.
SpaceX completed a medical evacuation demonstration for NASA using GO Searcher in Fall 2018. GO Searcher and GO Navigator have been preparing for Dragon 2 recovery operations for many years.
GO Searcher is the primary Dragon 2 recovery ship. The ship is equipped with a medical treatment facility, helipad, lifting frame and communications equipment to support the recovery of the spacecraft. The vessel recovered a Crew Dragon capsule for the first time during the Crew Demo-1 mission.
GO Navigator is the secondary Dragon 2 recovery ship. The ship is built identically to GO Searcher so is fully equipped with a medical facility, helipad and communications equipment.
SpaceX operates two identical recovery ships for operational redundancy and to allow them to have multiple landing and abort sites available if required.
Photo: Tom McCool