Boaters, one flying a Trump flag, swarmed SpaceX's historic landing on Sunday and endangered NASA astronauts — and they'll never be punished

Boaters, one flying a Trump flag, swarmed SpaceX's historic landing on Sunday and endangered NASA astronauts — and they'll never be punished
A boat with a person waving a Trump flag passes close to the Crew Dragon capsule after splashdown, August 2, 2020.Screenshot; NASA Live TV
  • SpaceX's historic first spaceflight with NASA astronauts concluded Sunday when the Crew Dragon spaceship splashed into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida.
  • More than a dozen private boats swarmed the floating capsule, flouting US Coast Guard directives to stay clear.
  • However, a Florida-based attorney with a maritime law background says those boaters will likely go unpunished.

When two NASA astronauts splashed into the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday, marking the successful completion of the first human flight in a SpaceX commercial spacecraft, the first ships on the scene weren't the recovery boats dispatched by Elon Musk's rocket company to bring them home. Instead, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were met by at least a dozen civilian boats that crowded the scene, despite warnings from the US Coast Guard.

As Morgan McFall-Johnsen reported for Business Insider on Sunday:

After landing, the capsule bobbed in the ocean for about 15 minutes as professional recovery boats sped to retrieve the astronauts — but they weren't alone on the water.

The landing site off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, drew a crowd of onlookers in their own boats. Some got close to the spaceship, including a boat flying a Trump flag that sped into view of NASA's live feed.

These boaters endangered themselves and others when they decided to approach the area around the spacecraft's landing, according to a statement from the Coast Guard, which was on the scene to supervise.


Boaters, one flying a Trump flag, swarmed SpaceX's historic landing on Sunday and endangered NASA astronauts — and they'll never be punished
A Trump flag-bearing boat disrupts the NASA livestream.NASA Live

The Coast Guard can't do much

But, ultimately, the Coast Guard can't punish the curious seafarers with fines, or by revoking their licenses: The SpaceX craft landed in international waters.

As John Michelli, a spokesperson for the Coast Guard's eighth district, wrote in an email to Business Insider (emphasis ours):

The Coast Guard does not have authority to establish restricted areas for these types of events beyond the navigable waterways of the United States, which in most cases is 12-nautical miles from shore. Without a duly established restricted area, the Coast Guard can advise the boating public of potential safety concerns but cannot issue fines or other violations to recreational boaters who encroached within the recovery zone.

'Screwed the pooch'

Still, the Coast Guard, NASA, and SpaceX could have handled the situation better, said Florida-based personal injury attorney Matt Dolman, who specializes in boating accidents.


"NASA screwed the pooch," Dolman said. "They didn't cordon off the area."

Still, SpaceX was in charge of the operation, with NASA and the Coast Guard in supporting roles. "We probably need more Coast Guard assets, maybe some more SpaceX and NASA assets as well. What's important is that Bob and Doug got safely on the boat, we were able to keep the area clear for landing, and then ask people to move back as they came a little bit too close," Gwynne Shotwell, the president and COO of SpaceX, said during a 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."

The crowd of boats "was not what we were anticipating," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in the same briefing. The Coast Guard had cleared the area ahead of the landing, but after the capsule splashed down, "the boats just made a beeline for it," he said. "We need to do a better job next time for sure."

Cordoning off a 10-square-mile area of the Gulf of Mexico would be, of course, be challenging, and require scores of boats and helicopters to make sure boaters weren't drifting into the area.

To avoid that massive build-up of resources, Dolman had another, cheaper suggestion for the Coast Guard: Giving boaters several days of advanced notice. The Coast Guard did issue a broadcast notice to mariners on July 29, four days before the scheduled splashdown, along with a radio notice to boaters in the area two hours prior.


Those boaters who were in the area were deliberate about going to the site of the splashdown, Dolman said. "It wasn't as if the boaters were just wandering in the area — they would get an alert," he said.

Still, not everyone listens to their boat radio. A warning several days in advance that's published in local media would make clear to mariners to stay away from the area. "That's where NASA was kind of ignorant," Dolman said. "They should have published this five to seven days ahead of time."

Michelli said the Coast Guard will review the operations — and the unwanted disruption — with NASA and SpaceX. This was the first water landing of a spacecraft since the 1970s, but it's unlikely to be the last.

"The development of lessons learned will be our next priority moving forward," Michelli wrote in an email. "The results of those lessons learned may yield further consideration to zones and the enforcement authorities of those zones."

Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting.


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