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SpaceX Dragon Recovery Program

Dragon is a free-flying spacecraft designed to deliver both cargo and crew 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 One flew from 2010 to 2020, resupplying the International Space Station under a contract with NASA. The crew variant of Dragon Two first flew during its demonstration mission in March 2019. A cargo variant of Dragon Two flew for the first time in October 2020. Dragon is recovered by ships Megan and Shannon.

Dragon One (Cargo)

From 2010 to 2020, Dragon one 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 was a platform supply vessel that was modified by SpaceX for Dragon recovery operations. The vessel had a crane, communications equipment and a lifting frame that allows it to recover the capsule from the water.

Recovered Dragon One capsule – SpaceX

Dragon being delivered to the Port of LA – Pauline Acalin

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 One and the start of Dragon Two operations, SpaceX moved all future splashdowns to the Atlantic Ocean.

Dragon Two (Cargo + Crew)

Dragon Two, the successor of Dragon One, 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 occurred on May 30th, 2020. The cargo variant of Dragon One flew 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. One of two dedicated ships will then recover the capsule and crew. Megan and Shannon 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. Megan first demonstrated SpaceX’s ability to do this during a recovery trial in February 2018.

Dragon recovery demo, February 2018

Medical evacuation demonstration, Fall 2018

Following the splashdown of a Dragon capsule, recovery teams in small fast-approach boats connect lines, deployed from the recovery ship, will start to work around Dragon. First checking for safety checks for the presence of hypergolics and crew welfare. Once those checks are complete the capsule is rigged to allow it to be hoisted onto the recovery ship. NASA requires SpaceX to egress astronauts from Dragon within 60 minutes of splashdown. Whilst the Dragon recovery operation is ongoing, other fast boats work to collect up the parachutes from the ocean surface and haul those onboard.

Once Dragon has been raised onto the recovery ship, astronauts are helped to exit the capsule and taken to the onboard medical facility for checkouts. A helicopter will then land on the vessel to take them back to land. For Cargo Dragon operations, a helicopter is also used to take time-sensitive cargo back to Kennedy Space Centre as fast as possible. 

Shannon and SpaceX successfully recovered astronauts for the first time upon the conclusion of the Crew Demo-2 mission, on August 2, 2020. Dragon Endeavor capsule was lifted from the water and NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were egressed from the capsule and taken to the onboard medical facility for checkouts. Shortly after, both were flown back to land by a helicopter which landed on Shannon.