Spacecraft Splashdown: Ocean Recovery Team Prepares for Orion's First Test Flight

Orion Recovery Test
Image Credit: NASA

It’s one of the iconic images associated with the history of America’s space program – U.S. Navy crewmembers retrieving astronauts from rafts after their space capsule splashed down in the ocean.

With the development of the Orion spacecraft by Lockheed Martin for NASA heralding the next era of human space exploration, it’s a scene that will be reprised in the future.

NASA, the U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company will take a big step in that direction Feb. 18-21 when they conduct the Underway Recovery Test off the coast of San Diego.

The effort is the second of two such activities designed to prepare the recovery team to retrieve the Orion crew module, forward bay cover and parachutes after splashdown. An earlier successful Stationary Recovery Test took place last August at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., using a Navy well deck recovery ship and Navy diver recovery teams.

“This test is part of a Department of Defense effort that integrates combatant command and service capabilities to determine best practices for safely retrieving spacecraft capable of carrying humans into space,” said Capt. John Menoni, USS San Diego (LPD 22) commanding officer. “The Navy has many unique capabilities that make us an ideal partner to support NASA.”

Besides serving as the prime contractor for NASA’s Orion program, Lockheed Martin is playing an active role in the recovery test effort. Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company developed key equipment being used in recovery test efforts, including a recovery cradle, recovery winch and sea anchor.

Navy divers will connect the winch – a 2,000-pound line – to the crew module. The winch is attached to the recovery cradle.

Recovery crew members will pull the capsule into the well deck of the ship, which will be flooded. Once guided into the well deck, the capsule will be lowered onto its bumpers, and the well deck will be drained.

The sea anchor, which attaches to the crew module, is a big, underwater parachute that keeps the capsule oriented properly.

“During the Underway Recovery test, not only are we monitoring the overall handling of the crew module, we are evaluating the designs and effectiveness of the key recovery support equipment,” said Larry Price, Orion program deputy program manager for Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “From this and the previous recovery test in Norfolk, we take away important observations to enable us to further refine and enhance the equipment. It’s all about ensuring Navy recovery crews have the best capabilities possible to perform a successful ocean recovery of astronauts and the Orion crew module as we continue to develop Orion.”

For NASA, the two recovery tests are pivotal for evaluating and proving ocean recovery capabilities ahead of Orion’s first mission, Exploration Flight Test 1, scheduled to launch this fall, which will allow engineers to assess the performance of Orion crew module system functions and capabilities in space.

During the mission, an uncrewed Orion capsule will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV heavy rocket from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had to recover a spacecraft from the ocean, and though this mission won’t have a crew, future missions will,” said NASA’s Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer. “NASA, the U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin personnel are working together to make sure we can recover the vehicle and eventually astronauts, safely. This flight helps us test recovery processes and equipment to ensure we’re ready for recovering the crew in the future.”

The Ground Systems Development and Operations Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is managing the recovery operations.

Orion is NASA’s first spacecraft designed for long-duration, human-rated deep space exploration. Orion will transport humans to interplanetary destinations beyond low Earth orbit, such as asteroids, the moon and eventually Mars, and return them safely back to Earth.


February 18, 2014

Orion Recovery Test: August 2013 The Orion test capsule underwent stationary recovery testing in Norfolk, Va., August 15, 2013. NASA and the U.S Navy led the tests using the USS Arlington. These stationary recovery tests allow the teams to demonstrate and evaluate the recovery processes, the hardware and the test personnel in a controlled environment. Image: NASA

Test at Naval Station Proves Recovery Operations for Orion

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.  August 16, 2013.