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NASA Tests Crew Exit Strategy for Orion

Suni Williams exits a test version of Orion
NASA astronaut Suni Williams exits a test version of the Orion spacecraft in the agency’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston. The testing is helping NASA identify the best ways to efficiently get astronauts out of the spacecraft after deep space missions.. Credits: NASA
Engineers participate in testing
Engineers participate in testing to evaluate procedures to recover crews from Orion after splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on future missions. The training took place at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Credits: NASA

When astronauts come home in Orion from deep-space missions, they’ll need a strategy for a safe and efficient exit. At NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, teams are performing a series of tests Oct. 6-8 to evaluate the most efficient way for astronauts to get out of the spacecraft after weeks or months away from Earth.

Orion will send crews to destinations where humans have never traveled before, including to an asteroid and on to deep space destinations including Mars, then bring them safely back. While engineers around the country are developing and building systems to support crews far from Earth in the harsh environment of space, teams also are continuing to develop techniques to ensure the final phase of the astronauts’ journey – getting back to dry land — is successful.

“When astronauts come back to Earth in Orion following the first crewed flight, they will have been away for long periods of time, so we want to be prepared to get them out of the spacecraft quickly in a variety of scenarios,” said Tom Walker, rescue and recovery lead for Orion. “The work we’re doing this week allows us to test out crew egress procedures using a mockup of Orion in the water.”

The buoyancy lab, NASA’s 6.2 million gallon pool that is primarily used to train astronauts underwater for spacewalks, provides a controlled environment where recovery personnel can practice techniques to assist people getting out of a test version of the crew module. The facility previously has been used to develop ways to approach and harness Orion for its first flight test last year, known as Exploration Flight Test-1 or EFT-1, and to develop manual uprighting procedures, if they were to become necessary.

During the three-day testing, personnel are simulating arriving to a spacecraft floating in the Pacific Ocean and what it will take to assist the crew as they exit. They will also evaluate the layout of equipment inside the spacecraft that affects exit and the gear used during the recovery process.

Team members from NASA’s Orion and the Ground Systems Development and Operations Programs are demonstrating and evaluating the procedures, and a team from several branches in the Department of Defense (DoD) specially trained in rescue techniques is providing insight into ways to efficiently get the crew out, including in a case where the crew is incapacitated. The work builds upon the development and execution of recovery procedures and equipment used for the uncrewed EFT-1, which will be modified from lessons learned and used during Exploration Mission-1, NASA’s first flight of Orion atop the agency’s Space Launch System rocket.

“Even though recovery of the first Orion crew is a few years away, testing early allows us to gather data to develop hardware and train our DoD forces,” said GSDO Recovery Director Melissa Jones. “Doing this in a controlled environment like the NBL allows for familiarization of the hardware before transitioning to open water operations.”

Test subjects, including both astronauts and engineers, will not be wearing the Modified Advanced Crew Escape spacesuits being developed for Orion during the evaluations but will instead wear garments and equipment that will limit mobility in a similar way as a spacesuit would to make the scenario more realistic.

“We’re including some astronauts who have flown in space in our training because they understand the effects of space and how you feel when you come back to Earth and can provide a helpful perspective,” Walker said. “We are also getting some of the engineers working on subsystems involved in recovery to be test subjects because it gives them insight into ways to improve those subsystems.” 

Orion is designed to sustain a crew that has splashed down in the ocean for up to 24 hours if it were to land off course and need to wait for recovery personnel. Astronauts also will be able to exit the spacecraft themselves if there were to be an issue that requires them to immediately leave it. Teams also are evaluating how well crew members can get out of the spacecraft within three minutes and into a raft by themselves, without the assistance of recovery personnel.

On crewed missions, Orion will be equipped with such a raft and a few additional emergency supplies such as water, tools and signaling mirrors, should the crew ever be in a situation where a team of recovery personnel is not immediately available to assist them.

NASA is developing multiple methods to get the crew out of the spacecraft on the day they return home, which gives recovery personnel and mission controllers flexibility to account for the crew’s health, weather and the condition of the recovery personnel and equipment in the area in real-time. Orion also will be able to be towed into the well deck of an amphibious U.S. Navy ship, as was done during Orion’s flight test last year and will be the primary recovery method during Exploration Mission-1. Since the ship’s well deck can be flooded to allow the spacecraft to be towed inside, then drained to let it sit on a hard surface, this method will allow the crew to exit right onto a stable platform.

The Orion training also is providing insight for Boeing and SpaceX, which are developing the commercial spaceflight systems, as well as landing recovery operations, for crews returning on American spacecraft from the International Space Station.

“We want to enable our partners to capitalize in any way they can on NASA’s work,” said Tim O’Brien, who is a member of the Ground and Mission Operations Office for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “By applying what we learned here from Orion, Boeing and SpaceX could possibly refine their own procedures for the safe and efficient recovery of our astronauts.”