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Could SpaceX Set Up Shop in Pensacola?

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NASA
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The first astronauts to ride the SpaceX Crew Dragon into space returned to Earth on Sunday, after a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola.

This was the first splashdown in 45 years for NASA astronauts, since the end of the Apollo program in 1975, and the first in the gulf. Test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken spoke to the media in Houston on Sunday.

“This has been quite an odyssey the last 5,6,7,8 years,” said Hurley. “Five years since Bob and I started working on this program. And to be where we are now – the first crew flight of Dragon – is just unbelievable.”

Hurley and Behnken spent two months aboard the International Space station. Behnken says the U.S. space program has come “full circle.”

“It took years to get here; we’ve brought the capability back to America, and we came home safely to our families,” said Behnken. “As we go forward – whether it’s in low-Earth orbit or to the moon or beyond – we need to figure out the best way to share what NASA knows, with the contractor team and help then be as successful as possible.”

Many in Pensacola who work on economic development for the city and region are looking at what doors may be opened through SpaceX – including Scott Luth, President and CEO of Florida West – the region’s economic development arm.

“It’s just a wonderful opportunity for Pensacola,” said Luth. “Our long history of being involved in the space industry and the space race back in the day. And also, just to be recognized and to be short-listed, whether we were even eligible to be a splashdown site, it was just an exciting day for everybody in this area.”

The gulf was used for splashdown because of Tropical Storm Isaias in the Atlantic. Luth is hoping SpaceX -- a private firm – might be open to using the gulf more often.

“We just want to continue to promote our community and our area; as we understand the [space] industry, when you have your contingency plans, we just always want to be in that mix for those contingencies,” Luth said. “To be able to support and accommodate future missions and opportunities and be involved as a community.”

Pensacola may already have a foot in the door. The ship on which the booster will land after delivering the spacecraft to orbit beginning next year is being refurbished at the Port of Pensacola, and will return there for post-mission repairs.

“We’re very grateful and excited to have Blue Origin here and to have their vessel here; so we want to continue to support their missions and operations here and continue to play a role there,” said Luth. “But going from just the splashdown side is where we’re really focusing a lot of their efforts – to make sure that companies like Blue Origin, Avalex – that’s where we know we can be successful.”

But a possible wrench in the works occurred Sunday, when several private boats sailed within a 10 nautical mile limit around the spacecraft. The Coast Guard said a radio broadcast was issued two hours before the SpaceX’s return; some of the mariners contend they didn’t hear it. Luth considers that as a lesson learned.

“Obviously, people wanted to go out and see and be part of that process first-hand,” said Florida West’s Scott Luth. “Moving forward, from their perspective, I’m assuming they’ll make whatever adjustments they need to do – maybe have a wider buffer around the splashdown site. I’m hopeful that our community’s excitement over the process and wanting to be there would not be a hindrance to anything in the future.”

The splashdown will be one of the areas to be studied, after this final test flight of the Crew Dragon, according to NASA. The data regarding the ship, the Falcon-9 rocket, ground systems, and docking with ISS will also be scrutinized.