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Navy Successfully Completes NASA Orion Test Mission

Navy divers assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 11 and Mobile Diving and Salvage Company 11‐7, attach a towing bridle to the NASA Orion crew module on Dec. 5, 2014. US Navy Photo

Navy divers assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 11 and Mobile Diving and Salvage Company 11‐7, attach a towing bridle to the NASA Orion crew module on Dec. 5, 2014. US Navy Photo

Friday’s successful test of NASA’s reusable Orion capsule was a first for the space agency and a renewal of a greater Navy role in the space program.

Riding a Delta IV heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral , Fla. the unmanned crew module flew out of the atmosphere for about 4 and a half hours before splashing down about 600 miles away from Naval Station San Diego, Calif in the NASA mission dubbed — Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1).

Waiting was the crew of the amphibious warship USS Anchorage (LPD- 23) to pick up the 9.5-ton capsule, in a maneuver NASA and the Navy hope to become routine.

Following reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, the capsule drifted down on three parachutes before splashing into the Pacific. Then Navy divers from Anchorage moved to the capsule from the ship’s welldeck on small rigid hull inflatable boats to attach lines to the capsule before it was winched into the ship.

“Orion is meant to be reused, which is why we tailored this recovery to accommodate keeping the capsule safe,” said Navy Diver 1st Class Matthew Demyers of Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11 said in a Monday Navy statement.

In addition to the welldeck, San Antonio-class LPDs have a 3-D air search radar and extensive medical facilities designed to care for embarked Marines — all attributes NASA liked, officials told USNI News in 2013.

Orion in the welldeck of USS Anchorage (LPD-23) on Dec. 5, 2014. US Navy Photo

Orion in the welldeck of USS Anchorage (LPD-23) on Dec. 5, 2014. US Navy Photo

The new method of capsule recovery is much safer and predictable than the Apollo era where Navy and Marine helicopters plucked the capsule from the water and landed them on the decks of aircraft carriers or older amphibious ships with a much higher degree of visual drama.

The Navy has been training to recover Orion since 2013 and EFT-1 is the fifth time the LPDs have worked with NASA on recovery testing.

Anchorage and NASA worked very closely during the second and third Underway Recovery Tests (URT) earlier this year in preparation for our mission today. This mission exemplifies the U.S. Navy commitment to the research and development of technologies and techniques to ensure the safety of human space flight support. I could not be more proud of my crew,” Capt. Michael McKenna said in a Monday statement.

The next out-of-atmosphere mission for the Orion is slated for 2018 with a manned flight possible sometime in 2021, according to NASA.

  • James Bowen

    Why so long till a manned flight?

    • James Brase

      If you mean a manned Orion flight it is because there is no man-rated rocket to put it on top of. Obama cancelled the Ares project in 2009 to free up funds to pay for commercial spaceflight. The next manned flight you will see (if all goes well) will be commercial flights (i.e. by SpaceX) to the ISS.

      • loupgarous

        And Space X’s Dragon has already done an unmanned rendezvous with ISS, so the only thing left is certifying a manned crew module for it.

  • Secundius

    I don’t think the Ukraine’s can hold-out that long…Sir.

  • omegatalon

    The Orion was designed because the US Government wasn’t sure whether the next generation heat shields would be effective as Lockheed’s first proposal was to develop a spacecraft more akin to Boeing’s X-37B.

  • aniptofar

    Seems like an awful waste to use a ship that size to pick up a capsule. It would likely be cheaper to build and man a dedicated ship esp. if it was commercial.

    • loupgarous

      It’s an improvement over the old days, when aircraft carriers were used to recover everything from Mercury to Apollo CMs. And, as the article says, the evolution of sailing up to the floating capsuie and winching it aboard into the well deck is a drastic improvement in safety and cost over the old “lift it by copter onto the top deck” method.

      As far as “a ship that size,” if the ample surgery on an LPD can save the life of an injured astronaut (let’s say decompression sickness, a large but little-appreciated hazard in space missions, or an injury from the spreading belt of space debris in low Earth orbit), then I’d say the expense of using that LPD was justified. And considering that eventually anything we do in space has military implications, we just might want a ship with a bunch of Marines on it handy whenever one of our spacecraft touches down.

      • aniptofar

        Leasing a vessel with a suitable a frame would be infinitely cheaper. It just wouldn’t look as cool.