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U.S. Navy to Recover New NASA Capsule

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Artist conception of an Orion capsule being towed into the well deck of a San Antonio-class amphibious ship. NASA Photo

Artist conception of an Orion capsule being towed into the well deck of a San Antonio-class amphibious ship. NASA Photo

At the start of U.S. space flight, capsules from the Mercury to Apollo programs were plucked from the sea by Navy and Marine helicopters and taken back home on aircraft carriers.

Now the service and the space agency are renewing the relationship for the recovery of NASA’s Orion manned capsule with the latest class of amphibious warship, NASA officials told USNI News.

San Antonio-class (LPD-17) ships USS Mesa Verde (LPD-19) and USS San Diego (LPD-22) will serve as test beds for the recovery of the capsule into tests scheduled ahead of the first Orion flight test in 2014 — Exploration Flight Test-1, according to NASA.

The first test near Naval Station Norfolk, Va. will occur with Mesa Verde in August.

“During the simulations next August, we’ll be conducting a two-day stationary recovery test to evaluate hardware and recovery processes in a controlled, benign environment. That’s what we’re calling the crawl phase. In this test we’ll utilize the Navy’s Mesa Verde,” said Jim Hamblin, landing and recovery operations manager for NASA Ground Systems Development and Operations, in an interview with NASA Space Flight.

Sailors from the ship will travel to the landed Orion in rigid hull inflatable boats while divers check the capsule for hazards. Then lines from a winch in the ship will bring the capsule into the flooded well deck. The capsule will be guided toward a cradle in the flooded well deck. When the capsule is secure, the deck will be drained.

The following test will be conducted off of San Diego in January under more difficult environmental conditions, Hamblin said.

The tests are in anticipation of Sept. 2014 EFT-1, when the Orion capsule will embark on its first unmanned out-of-atmosphere test. The capsule will ride a Delta IV-Heavy far enough to allow the capsule to simulate an entry into the atmosphere from deep space. Sailors from a San Antonio-class ship will likely man the capsule recovery.