With the U.S. Navy's well deck ship USS Arlington stationed against its pier at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, divers in small boats approached a test version of NASA's Orion crew module. As part of a deliberative process, the divers attached tow lines and led the capsule to a flooded well deck. With the capsule in position over the recovery cradle, the water drained until the capsule settled.
The stationary recovery test is helping to ensure that when Orion returns from deep space missions and splashes down in the Pacific Ocean, the methods used to recover the spacecraft and obtain critical heat shield data are sound.
“Today marks a significant milestone in the Navy’s partnership with NASA and the Orion Human Space Flight Program,” said Navy Commander Brett Moyes, Future Plans Branch chief, U.S. Fleet. “The Navy is excited to support NASA’s continuing mission of space exploration. Our unique capabilities make us an ideal partner for NASA in the recovery of astronauts in the 21st century — just as we did nearly a half century ago in support of America’s quest to put a man on the moon.”
The stationary recovery test was two years in the making. NASA met in working groups with the Navy to leverage their well deck recovery expertise to develop recovery procedures for the Orion crew module. Together, NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD) carefully choreographed each step of the test.
“It was nice to see how the ballet of it all performed,” said Lou Garcia, NASA Recovery Director.
In the sheltered waters next to a pier, the controlled environment test revealed how precise the positioning of the capsule can be over the cradle used to move the crew module, how long the recovery operation takes and how the taglines, winch lines and tow lines work.
“This allows us to practice our procedures in a benign environment with no ship movement and minimum wave action,” said Jim Hamblin, landing and recovery element operations manager, Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) Program.
Navy divers prepared for the recovery test in Norfolk by training in the 6.2 million gallon pool at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston.
Scott Wilson, manager, Offline Processing and Infrastructure for Development, GSDO Program, referred to testing strategy as a “crawl, walk, run.”
“With this test, we are taking the first steps in learning to walk,” Wilson said.
The hardware used in the stationary test will be sent to the West Coast to prepare for a future test of Orion recovery operations in open water planned for January 2014. NASA and the DoD will use the recovery procedures employed in Norfolk to evaluate methods for next year's recovery operations test.
Lessons learned from the test in Norfolk and January's underway recovery test will be applied to the recovery of the Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 in September 2014.
EFT-1 will be Orion's first mission, which will send an uncrewed spacecraft 3,600 miles into Earth's orbit. As part of the test flight, Orion will return to Earth at a speed of approximately 20,000 mph for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. The flight test will provide engineers with critical data about Orion's heat shield, flight systems and capabilities to validate designs of the spacecraft before it begins carrying humans to new destinations in the solar system, including an asteroid and Mars.
EFT-1 will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and splash down off the Baja Coast on the same day. For EFT-1, the recovery ship and team will be in the splashdown zone at the time of launch.
“The recovery of the EFT-1 unmanned Orion capsule will become another building block towards the recovery of Orion capsules with our nation's astronauts aboard,” Garcia said.
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NASA Langley Research Center