Navy practices Orion crew module recovery

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US Navy divers attach tow lines to a dummy Orion capsule(Credit: US Navy/Petty Officer 1st Class Torrey W. Lee)

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When the next Orion spacecraft splashes down, the mission will be far from over. The US Navy will need to spring into action to safely recover the crew capsule and to practice for the day, the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS San Diego completed a successful rehearsal in the Pacific Ocean of splashdown recovery operations of the crew module.

Held in conjunction with NASA, the Underway Recovery Test-5 is the latest in a series of tests in anticipation of the unmanned Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), in 2018. USS San Diego's task was to launch a dummy Orion capsule from its sea-level recovery well deck. Specialist diver and demolition teams were then dispatched as the ship stood off to practice approaching the capsule as it had just splashed down.

Though the capsule wasn't fueled, the recovery teams still treated it as if it could be leaking potentially toxic or explosive propellants. A towing harness was installed around the capsule while San Diego maneuvered alongside until the towline could be attached to a NASA-designed winch to pull it back into the well deck.

The United States hasn't conducted a splashdown and recovery of a manned space mission since the Apollo Soyuz flight in 1975. Not only are there many old skills that need to be relearned after over 40 years, but advances in technology and naval salvage techniques need to be considered and adapted. The Navy says the purpose of the current round of tests is to demonstrate and evaluate the recovery processes, procedures, hardware and personnel under sea conditions. Future tests will not only help in the recovery of EM-1, but also of manned missions slated to begin in 2021.

The San Antonio-class ships are particularly important for these operations because they have advanced recovery equipment and can launch multiple small boats at a moment's notice, as well as having extensive medical facilities aboard to tend to returning astronauts.

The next tests will use the NASA recovery ship, USS Anchorage.

"This was a proof-of-concept URT, which means we were testing hypotheses that we had developed over the last year, along with some prototype hardware," says NASA's Landing and Recovery Director, Melissa Jones. "I'm happy to say that it was very successful and we have a lot of data going forward to figure out what our next test will be."

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