SpaceX may try to catch Crew Dragon capsules with a giant net. (No, really.)

Half of a SpaceX Falcon 9 payload fairing settles into the net of the boat GO Ms. Tree on the night of Aug. 6, 2019, in this screenshot from a video posted on Twitter by SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk.
(Image: © Elon Musk/SpaceX via Twitter)
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon astronaut taxis may not always cap their missions with ocean splashdowns.

The company might end up trying to snag returning Crew Dragons with net-equipped boats, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said Sunday (Jan. 19) during a news conference shortly after the capsule aced a crucial in-flight abort test (IFA).

SpaceX already operates two such boats, named Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief, which to date have been employed to catch falling rocket payload fairings (the protective nose cones that surround satellites during launch). The boats have succeeded on a few occasions, but most of their targets have ended up in the drink.

“This requires ongoing discussions with NASA, but I think it would be quite cool to use the boats that we are using to catch the fairing, once that is really well-established, to catch Dragon as it’s coming in from orbit,” Musk said. “And then that would alleviate some of the constraints around a water landing.”

NASA has considerable input in this decision because SpaceX has been developing Crew Dragon under a series of contracts from the agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP). The CCP is counting on SpaceX and Boeing, which is developing its own capsule called CST-100 Starliner, to fly NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), a job that only Russian Soyuz spacecraft have been able to do since the space shuttle fleet retired in July 2011.

Sunday’s successful IFA seems to put Crew Dragon in the home stretch to crewed flight. If detailed IFA data analyses reveal no surprises and Crew Dragon passes two more system-level tests with its revamped parachutes, SpaceX will be cleared to fly Demo-2, a test mission that will carry NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to and from the ISS. Demo-2 could end up launching as early as this spring, Musk said on Sunday.

SpaceX sees total and rapid reusability as the key to opening space to much greater exploration, including the colonization of Mars and the moon. Indeed, the company routinely lands and reflies the first stages of its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket and has pulled off similar touchdowns during liftoffs of the huge Falcon Heavy launcher, which has just a few missions under its belt.

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