• The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying two NASA astronauts got a surprising splashdown reception Sunday
  • A fleet of civilian boats, including one flying a Trump flag, greeted the returning spacecraft before the recovery crew
  • The U.S. Coast Guard tried in vain to clear all the boats from the splashdown site

President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign grabbed some free publicity Sunday when a private boat waving his banner video-bombed NASA’s live feed of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule splashdown off the coast of Florida.

With dozens of civilian boats ignoring the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG) repeated requests to maintain a safe distance from the returning capsule, several vessels arrived on the scene well before the recovery crew.

One of the boats sailing close to the smoking space capsule as it bobbed in the sea near Pensacola, Fla., flew a blue flag atop its wheelhouse with the word "Trump" emblazoned on it. The boat with its two occupants passed in front of the NASA live feed camera broadcasting the first ocean splashdown involving American astronauts since 1975.

Apart from this brief instance of political theater, the return to Earth capped a successful end to the Demo-2 mission. The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule safely returned NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday afternoon.

But the issue marring the day's historic moment were the many boaters who put the recovery operation in jeopardy. The USCG said some of the boaters "ignored the Coast Guard crews' requests and decided to encroach the area, putting themselves and those involved in the operation in potential danger."

Admitting it had no authority to ban boats from the area, the USCG managed to clear the area ahead of the landing. After Crew Dragon hit the water, however, "the boats just made a beeline for it," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

He also said this "was not what we were anticipating" and pointed to the "need to do a better job next time for sure." The SpaceX recovery team also had to clear the boats from the area before it could retrieve Crew Dragon.

"Maybe next time we shouldn't announce our landing zone," said SpaceX engineer Kate Tice during NASA's live feed of the landing.

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said the boats ventured "a little bit too close to the Dragon capsule." SpaceX said coming too close to Crew Dragon might also have endangered the boaters since poisonous fumes encased the capsule after it landed.

Crew Dragon Astronauts
NASA astronauts Robert Behnken (L) and Douglas Hurley are seen inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule spacecraft that landed in the Gulf of Mexico after completing the Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station on Aug. 2, 2020, off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images