Engineers at NASA's Langley Research Center, Virginia, are putting a team of advanced crash-test dummies through astronaut hell. It's all part of testing for the potential injuries that could be inflicted on future crews splashing down in the Orion spacecraft.
The Orion spacecraft is a vital component to NASA's roadmap to Mars, and as such will be required to be capable of withstanding an atmospheric re-entry and splashdown from a deep-space velocity. Even if Orion's three main stage parachutes deploy without a hitch, the crew will still be in for an unpleasant jolt when the spacecraft impacts the ocean.
In order to ensure that the impact is experienced as a mere annoyance to the astronauts on-board rather than a potentially life-threatening event, a team of engineers have mocked up a full-size representation of the Orion capsule to vigorously test the risk posed by the sudden deceleration of splashdown.
During each of the tests, the mock spacecraft is crewed by a set of crash-test dummies fitted with a range of internal sensors. Paired with sensors mounted aboard the mock capsule itself, the trials should grant NASA and its partner Lockheed Martin invaluable data regarding how the pressure of impact affects the capsule, and how translation of the forces through a chair could potentially injure the crew.
The dummies are fitted with Advanced Crew Escape Suits(ACES), which may be used by future human crews during lift-off, extravehicular activities (EVAs), and finally, during descent and splashdown.
So far, the mock capsule has been tested by dropping it from a wire harness into a large tank of water while simulating a range of conditions such as strong winds and rough waves. To date, four of these tests have been completed.
Over the next few months, the Orion mock-up (including its unlucky but thankfully lifeless crew) will be put through a series of five swing tests. This alternative method of testing will see the capsule strapped into a harness, and slung into the simulated ocean at an angle.
"This gives us a better understanding of localized responses at the head and neck to protect against common impact injuries like concussion and spinal fracture," states Mark Baldwin, crew injury lead for Orion prime contractor, Lockheed Martin. "We are intentionally going to extremes in this test series because that is where we need to demonstrate we can keep the structure intact and the crew safe regardless of the conditions at splashdown."