SpaceX demonstrated a safety system that will protect astronauts in the case of any unfortunate unforeseen accidents in future Crew Dragon flights, which included the spacecraft splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. But during a post-mission press conference, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggested future return trips for the human-rated spacecraft could look very different.
Musk suggested that SpaceX could eventually seek to recover the Crew Dragon capsule using ships at sea that 'catch' the spacecraft as it lands, rather than allowing it to splash down and recover it from the water. SpaceX is in the process of testing a similar system to recover the fairings (large protective covers) it uses to enclose cargo during its existing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches.
"This requires ongoing discussions with with with NASA, but I think it'd be quite quite cool to use the boats that we are using to catch the fairing," Musk said. "Once that is really well-established, [we could attempt] to catch the catch Dragon as it's coming in from orbit, and then that would alleviate some of the constraints around a water landing."
This could be a major advantage for SpaceX in terms of cost and reusability of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which it eventually hopes to be able to fly both for NASA and for other commercial clients. Still, Musk emphasized that this is a goal for considerably further out beyond Crew Dragon's actual start of service life, since it both requires NASA's buy-in and certification, and also requires that SpaceX actually demonstrate their ability to reliably catch the cargo fairing first. So far, it's caught one half of one fairing, but has also had a number of failed attempts.
"We obviously need to recover [the fairing] very reliably before we we consider trying to catch the catch the Dragon," he added. "But I think that would be also an improvement, as opposed to lightning in the water."