Practicing Orion Spacecraft Recovery After Splashdown

Image Credit: NASA/Radislav Sinyak

Image Credit: NASA/Radislav Sinyak

September 22, 2016 – A group of U.S. Navy divers, Air Force pararescumen and Coast Guard rescue swimmers are practicing Orion underway recovery techniques this week in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to prepare for the first test flight of an uncrewed Orion spacecraft with the agency’s Space Launch System rocket during Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1).

A test version of the Orion spacecraft was lowered into the water in the NBL. Divers wearing scuba gear used ground support equipment and zodiac boats to swim or steer to the test spacecraft. They placed a flotation collar around Orion and practiced using the new tow cleat modifications that will allow the tether lines to be connected to the capsule. The tether lines are being used to simulate towing Orion into the well deck of a Navy recovery ship.

Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

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 safely practice techniques that will be used in actual missions.

The recovery team, engineers with NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations program and Orion manufacturer Lockheed Martin, are currently preparing for Underway Recovery Test 5 (URT-5), which will take place in San Diego and aboard the USS San Diego in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California in October. URT-5 will be the first major integrated test in a series of tests to prepare the recovery team, hardware and operations to support Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) recovery.

During EM-1, Orion will be launched on NASA’s Space Launch System to about 40,000 miles beyond the moon. The spacecraft’s systems and heat shield will be tested during a three-week mission, before descending through Earth’s atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego. EM-1 will pave the way for future missions with astronauts and help NASA prepare for missions to Mars.

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.

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. In addition to having the astronauts exit the capsule in the water, Orion also will be able to be towed into the well deck of an amphibious U.S. Navy ship. This was the method used in Orion’s first flight test in 2014, and will also be the primary recovery method during EM-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 onto a stable platform.

This week engineers are also preparing for tests to qualify the propulsion subsystem, including the main engine, for Orion’s European-built service module that will propel the spacecraft during EM-1. The tests of the propulsion qualification model include tests of the engines, propellant feed systems, and propulsion control avionics. The tests will start at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico, USA, in spring 2017.

The propulsion qualification model that will be used for testing will be shipped from Sweden to White Sands in November 2016. It consists of two helium tanks (to pressurize the propellant tanks), propellant tanks, thrusters, piping, electronics, pressure control assemblies, a pressure regulation unit and propellant isolation equipment (valves).

While the main engine and test facilities for the Propulsion Qualification Model are prepared for firing up, the main engine has been refurbished and tested at White Sands, and was shipped to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for vibration testing. The vibration testing is helping to ensure the engine can withstand the loads induced by the rocket during launch. After testing at the Johnson Space Center, the flight engine will be sent to Europe so ESA can integrate it into the Orion service module before delivery to NASA.

Orion’s service module main engine is a modified Orbital Manoeuvring System engine used before on the Space Shuttle that is being repurposed for use in the European service module.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Littleton, Colorado is the prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft.