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The BBC News article SpaceX Dragon demo capsule set to return to Earth talks about the return of the first Crew Dragon capsule to Earth:

Four parachutes should bring it into soft contact with water about 450km from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Splashdown is expected at about 08:45 EST (13:45 GMT). A boat, called GO Searcher, will be waiting to recover the capsule.

Question: Splashdown sounds like it lands in the water, but the "boat" has a big SpaceX landing pad on top. Why? And why does it say "17" in three orientations?

enter image description here

The GO Searcher vessel is tasked with picking Dragon crew capsules out of the water. NASA

Are there any plans for this to be used for propulsively-guided capsule landings in the future?

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    $\begingroup$ Has the look of a helicopter landing pad. Perhaps to fly future astronauts back to land or for medivac operations. See here for more info... $\endgroup$ – BobT Mar 8 at 4:58
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    $\begingroup$ @BobT I've modified the question a bit just now, thank you $\endgroup$ – uhoh Mar 8 at 5:12
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    $\begingroup$ The numeral '17' may be the load limit in thousands of pounds. According to Wikipedia, "Rooftop helipads sometimes display a large two-digit number, representing the weight limit (in thousands of pounds) of the pad. In addition, a second number may be present, representing the maximum rotor diameter in feet". It's not a rooftop, but it's plausible that the numerals indicate the same limits... $\endgroup$ – BobT Mar 8 at 5:21
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    $\begingroup$ FAA document with that info. Specified in 309 g. faa.gov/documentlibrary/media/advisory_circular/150-5390-2b/… $\endgroup$ – BowlOfRed Mar 8 at 23:25
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No, the pad will not be used for propulsive capsule landings. As requested by NASA, SpaceX have stopped pursuing propulsive capsule landing. The landing legs have been removed from the design, for instance.

The pad is for a helicopter:

Most notably, GO Searcher is being fitted with a helipad that will be used to rapidly transfer astronauts from Crew Dragon to Cape Canaveral, where they will go through a number of medical evaluations and debriefings after a six-month stay in orbit aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

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    $\begingroup$ Definitely a chopper pad, it's too close to the crew for a propulsive landing. $\endgroup$ – GdD Mar 8 at 10:22
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    $\begingroup$ So maybe a folded helicopter propellor will pop out the top of the Crew Dragon bring them in for a landing on the heliport? $\endgroup$ – uhoh Mar 8 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ Of course not. Not enough room in the Dragon to fit a rotor large enough to bring it in for a soft landing. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Mar 8 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbes I've once heard that some users don't use StackExchange's explicit sarcasm indicator as often as they should. Something to keep in mind. $\endgroup$ – leftaroundabout Mar 8 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab I'm looking for an image of musk in one of these: 1, 2, 3; (propeller beanie) There's a resemblance (particularly relevant space canon). $\endgroup$ – uhoh Mar 8 at 23:53
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For Cargo Dragon flights, NASA has a requirement to late load certain experiments, and upon landing, quickly retrieve them. As you can imagine some experiments are very time sensitive to get the best results.

The landing zones are not usually all that close to shore, so by ship it can take many hours to days to bring the capsule back and get into it.

The helicopter pad shown allows for flying the samples back. In this case the samples happen to be people who landed in the Crew Dragon.

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Addressing specifically:

Any plans for propulsive capsule landings?

The answer is that there may have been unspoken plans, but after the situation discussed in SpaceX and propulsive landing on Mars — what just happened? (and why?) they may not be voicing them to loudly.


Teslarati's recent article SpaceX’s Crew Dragon could land with abort thrusters in emergencies, says Musk says:

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says that Crew Dragon – originally designed to propulsively land like Falcon 9 – is still technically able to do so, a capability that could give the already uniquely redundant spacecraft yet another level of safety during Earth reentry and landing.

While Musk noted that adding or enabling that capability during missions with astronauts would be entirely dependent upon NASA’s approval, the idea would be to trigger Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco abort thrusters in the event of a partial or total failure of the spacecraft’s parachutes. Although Crew Dragon is already capable of keeping its passengers safe if one of its four parachutes fails to properly deploy, the loss of any additional drag would likely create a situation where the force of impact on the ocean surface could severely injure or kill astronauts, much like a car crash without airbags. To prevent this, Crew Dragon could fire its thrusters at the last second, canceling out or at least minimizing the force of impact.

a related tweet

The Teslarati article goes on to say:

If it can be done, Crew Dragon would be the only spacecraft in the world with the ability to ensure crew survival in the event of a failure involving parachute deployment, although it’s not clear if that recovery redundancy would still be available after an actual in-flight or pad abort during launch operations. Still, for a space agency so apparently fixated on and worried about ‘qualifying’ SpaceX’s Crew Dragon parachutes and a “Safety first!” culture more generally, one would expect NASA to jump on any opportunity to dramatically improve spacecraft safety with minimal additional effort.

Just fyi, the Soyuz capsule does use a propulsive burst to lower velocity just before impact, as does Blue Origin's New Shepard crew capsule:

Soyuz MS-08 landing

GIF from Soyuz MS-08 landing

Blue Origin NS-10: New Shepard launch & landing, 23 January 2019

GIF from Blue Origin NS-10: New Shepard launch & landing, 23 January 2019

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