SpaceX’s helipad-equipped boat will bring astronauts safely home

A freshly upgraded SpaceX ship and its crew just went through dramatic dress rehearsals, running through how they’d rescue injured astronauts after they return to Earth. When SpaceX starts ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station next year, the company’s ocean vessel Go Searcher will be tasked with recovering SpaceX’s crewed Dragon capsules that splash down in the Atlantic Ocean. The ship is now equipped for a worst-case-scenario with medical treatment facilities and a helipad, in case returning astronauts need to be evacuated quickly to a hospital.

Go Searcher is part of a fleet of ocean vessels that SpaceX has acquired over the years to aid in its spaceflight efforts. The most famous of these are SpaceX’s autonomous drone ships, which are used as landing pads when the company’s Falcon 9 rockets are recovered in the ocean after launches. Go Searcher used to accompany these drone ships when they were tugged back to shore as a support vessel. But at the end of summer, SpaceX gave Go Searcher a suite of upgrades — including the addition of a helipad and a radar dome — to make sure the boat can swiftly recover Dragon capsules that carry astronauts back to Earth.

As part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX has been developing the Crew Dragon capsule to take astronauts to the ISS. And the company is also responsible for getting these crews safely back to Earth. When astronauts need to return home, the plan is for the Crew Dragon to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. During an ideal mission, Go Searcher will lift the Crew Dragon out of the water with a crane, attached to the end of the boat, according to NASA. The capsule will then be hauled onto the deck of Go Searcher, and the astronauts will be evaluated by doctors from SpaceX and NASA.

A medical emergency dress rehearsal on SpaceX’s Go Searcher vessel.
Image: NASA

But if something goes awry during the landing, astronauts can be airlifted directly off the boat via helicopter and taken to a hospital. The helicopter will also carry medical emergency personnel. That way, doctors can be on hand every step of the way to help astronauts that might need to be evacuated quickly from the capsule.

There’s still some time before Go Searcher will be needed. The first flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is slated for January 2019. And the Crew Dragon will be empty for that mission, too. But if the vehicle’s key systems check out okay, the uncrewed test flight will then be followed by a crewed one scheduled for June 2019. At the same time, NASA’s other Commercial Crew partner, Boeing, is scheduled to fly its capsule, the CST-100 Starliner, for the first time without crew in March 2019, with a crewed launch then set for August. However, the Starliner is designed to land on US soil, so there’s no need for a recovery boat.

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