When Orion returns from deep space missions and lands in the ocean, a team will be responsible for safely returning the capsule and crew back to land. That feat will be accomplished by a landing and recovery group that includes NASA and contractor engineers and technicians and U.S. Navy divers, along with a variety of water vessels and ground support equipment.
NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations Program (GSDO), the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force and contractor employees recently wrapped up in late October a successful rehearsal of Orion recovery, called an Underway Recovery Test, aboard the USS San Diego in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. The USS San Diego is an amphibious ship with a landing platform/dock used to pull the Orion spacecraft into the ship, and underway is a US Navy term meaning that the ship is out to sea. This is the fifth such test with Orion, and previous underway recovery tests have helped contribute to the team’s understanding of how to adjust for various water conditions and contingency scenarios.
“Our Orion recovery testing was our first chance to field test new ground support equipment and operational procedures,” said Mike Bolger, GSDO director at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
During the recovery test, the team demonstrated and evaluated in open water new recovery processes, procedures, hardware and personnel that will be necessary to recover the Orion crew module into the well deck of a Navy ship based on what was learned during Orion’s flight test in December 2014. New ground support equipment testing included attaching tow lines to five attach points, rather than three, on the crew module. Also, tow cleat assemblies were modified to include a tow pin insert that allows easier tow line connections in rocky waves.
The recovery team headed out to sea aboard the ship, along with a test version of the Orion crew module and recovery support equipment secured in the ship’s well deck. During a series of tests over several days, the well deck was flooded with water and the test vehicle was allowed to float out to open water to rehearse various segments of recovery procedures, including attaching a collar and various lines on the module and pulling, or guiding it back into the ship.
U.S. Navy divers in inflatable Zodiac boats and other team members in rigid hull inflatable boats maneuvered to the test vehicle. They secured a flotation collar around Orion and attached tether lines to attach points on the module to keep it upright.
The team guided the test vehicle back to the ship, where a winch line was attached to pull it into the ship’s well deck. A capture net was used to keep Orion inside the ship. The water was drained back and Orion was secured on the crew module recovery cradle.
“We tested a new generation of prototypes for capsule recovery in the well deck. We also installed a new suite of instrumentation and cameras to gather data on the performance of this new hardware,” said Melissa Jones, GSDO Landing and Recovery director. “Our testing was very successful. Everything we learned will help us for future recovery testing.”
Other goals of the testing included assessing on-ship and ship-to-shore communications, as well as recording timing data for recovery activities to help provide future recovery methods for crewed missions.
“The team gained invaluable open water experience, validated the design of several pieces of ground support equipment, and accomplished the test objectives,” Bolger said.
The team will fine tune their strategy, make some equipment adjustments and return to the open water for another test late next year.
Orion is the exploration spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to destinations not yet explored by humans, including an asteroid and the agency’s Journey to Mars. It will have emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during space travel and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.
NASA’s Orion spacecraft is scheduled to launch atop the Space Launch System rocket on its first deep space mission in late 2018. The mission will send Orion on a path thousands of miles beyond the moon over a course of three weeks, farther into space than human spaceflight has ever travelled before. The spacecraft will return to Earth and safely splash down in the Pacific Ocean. The mission will advance and validate capabilities required for the Journey to Mars.