The US Navy has successfully completed a trial recovery of NASA’s Orion space capsule, which is designed to carry humans into deep space.
This was the fourth test retrieval completed aboard USS Anchorage, a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock that can recover the capsule using its well deck. Anchorage is also able to carry and deploy multiple small craft to aid the recovery process and contains on board medical facilities that could treat returning astronauts.
The Orion spacecraft is intended to carry a crew to space, provide emergency mission abort capabilities and offer a safe re-entry when subject to deep space velocities.
The trial involved releasing the test capsule from Anchorage’s well deck, then carefully manoeuvring the vessel alongside the capsule at slow speed. Once the test article was far enough from the ship, the lines attaching the capsule to the ship were released.
Divers then secured a stabilization ring designed by NASA that would help in sustaining the astronauts in the capsule for up to three days. Lines from small boats were subsequently attached to guide the capsule toward Anchorage, where rigid hull inflatable boats would assist in connecting lines from a winch that hauled the capsule into the well deck.
Recovering Orion is a high-risk operation, especially when the capsule is being towed closely behind the ship.
“There are so many things that could go wrong if just one person isn't paying attention,” says Chief Petty Officer Beau Lontine, a Navy diver involved with the trial. “We've conducted training with the hardware and rigging to allow for a safe recovery of the capsule. It might seem like a basic recovery, but it is far from a simple evolution."
Tests of this nature have been conducted since 2014, and will continue until NASA engineers believe the capsule recovery process is free of errors.