A joint team of NASA and U.S. Navy personnel are testing new equipment and practicing procedures for recovering astronauts that have splashed down in the ocean upon returning from space travel.
NASA’s deep space exploration systems will send a crew through space at 25,000 miles per hour, travelling some 40,000 miles beyond the Moon before coming back home. When returning to Earth, the Orion spacecraft will slow to a mere 300 mph as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, eventually slowing to 20 mph before it safely splashing down in the Pacific.
The astronauts will need to be picked up as quickly as possible, and that’s where Kennedy Space Center’s NASA Recovery Team comes into play.
NASA’s recovery director, Melissa Jones, and her team will recover the Orion capsule and crew under the auspices of Exploration Ground Systems. After Orion completes its mission out past the Moon and heads to Earth, Jones will get the call that the spacecraft is coming home. It is her job to then get the NASA and U.S. Navy team to the capsule’s location quickly and bring it and the astronauts safely aboard the U.S. Navy recovery ship.
NASA and the U.S. Navy are currently working together off the coast of Southern California to ensure they are ready before the first Orion mission aboard the agency’s new Space Launch System rocket Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), slated for December 2019. The successful completion of the uncrewed EM-1 would pave the way for subsequent crewed missions and enable future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
“We are testing all of our equipment in the actual environment we will be in when recovering Orion after Exploration Mission-1,” Jones said. “Everything we are doing today is ensuring a safe and swift recovery when the time comes for missions with crew.”
San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Anchorage (LPD 23) departed from Naval Base San Diego on January 17 for the Underway Recovery Test (URT), which involves practicing and evaluating recovery processes, procedures, hardware and personnel in an open ocean environment.
The mission marks the fourth time Anchorage has been called upon to conduct a URT with NASA. Throughout the history of the program, a variety of San Antonio-class LPD ships have been utilized to train and prepare NASA and the Navy, utilizing a Boiler Plate Test Article (BTA), a mock capsule, designed to roughly the same size, shape and center of gravity as NASA's Orion crew module.
NASA and Navy teams have taken lessons learned from previous recovery tests to improve operations and ensure the ability to safely and successfully recover the Orion capsule when it returns to Earth.
During URT-6, Anchorage's specially trained bridge team is on watch while the ship conducts restricted operations. Small boats carrying Navy divers and NASA's recovery team maneuver alongside the BTA to rig tending lines, guiding the capsule to Anchorage as the ship safely operates on station.
Conducting both daytime and nighttime recovery operations, NASA crew members work alongside the Navy to manage how the capsule is brought in, set down and safely stored.
NASA plans to conduct three more URT missions before the launch of EM-1.