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USNI News Video: Recovering NASA’s Next Spacecraft at Sea

US Navy divers assist NASA and the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Anchorage (LPD-23) recover a mock-up capsule designed to roughly simulate the size, shape, mass and center of gravity of the Orion crew module. US Navy Photo

Last week amphibious warship USS Anchorage (LPD-23) practiced recovering a mockup of the new Orion capsule NASA intends to use on future missions to deep space.

Anchorage is one of the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ships the Navy intends to use in a partnership with NASA to recover the capsules when the space agency resumes manned missions into space. The test run, Underway Recovery Test-6 (URT-6), practiced safely retrieving the Orion crew module, which is capable of carrying up to six humans past Earth’s orbit.

“Our crew has actually been training for several months closely with NASA on everything from planning conferences to onsite training to be ready for the mission,” Capt. Dennis Jacko, Anchorage’s commanding officer, said in a press release.
“I think the ship and the crew are doing a great job for a historic tasking we have added to a very busy schedule as we prepare for deployment. Everybody stepped up and provided the best support with our NASA partners for a very successful test.”

It’s been nearly 45 years since the Navy recovered the Apollo 17 capsule in a splashdown in the Pacific near American Samoa, the last time NASA used deep space capsules. Navy equipment for recovery today has advanced quite a bit from what was used during the 1960s and early 1970s missions, when a typical recovery involved Navy divers and helicopter crews plucking astronauts and capsules form the water before delivering them to a nearby aircraft carrier.

Apollo 13 is recovered after its harrowing mission, April 17, 1970. US Naval Institute Archives

Today’s LPDs are designed to conduct amphibious operations, which the Navy considers an ideal match to partner with NASA. The well decks on San Antonio-class ships are designed to launch and recover amphibious craft, which can be used to bring capsules back to the ship after splashdown. Anchorage also has the ability to carry and deploy multiple small boats to aid the capsule recovery process, and the ship contains an advanced medical facility that can be used to treat returning astronauts, according to a Navy statement.

During the test, the Orion capsule was released from Anchorage’s well deck. Once the Orion capsule was far enough from Anchorage, lines attaching it to the ship were released. Various methods of recovery were practices, including an open water crew egress, which involves Navy divers installing a stabilization collar around the spacecraft and an inflatable platform to assist with stabilizing Orion and making it easer for astronauts to leave the capsule, according to a NASA fact sheet. 

USNI News Image

Divers also practiced removing the collar, attaching lines from the small boats to steady and guide the capsule toward Anchorage. Rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIB) used NASA-designed winch to haul the capsule onto the welldeck, according to a Navy statement.

The Navy and NASA have been conducting these recovery tests since 2014. The most recent test marked the fourth such exercise aboard Anchorage. NASA engineers worked with sailors aboard the ship. Also involved with tests were Special Boat Team 12 and Navy divers from Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 3. More than15 test recoveries occurred in varying sea states and both at night and during daylight. The next test is scheduled to occur in October, aboard the USS Somerset (LPD-25). During this test, NASA plans to validate and verify the recovery hardware.

NASA Astronaut Stephen G. Bowen, retired Navy Captain (NASA photo)

NASA Astronaut Stephen G. Bowen, retired
Navy Captain NASAP photo

For the first time during such a test, a NASA astronaut, reitred U.S. Navy Capt. Stephen Bowen, was onboard to observe the capsule recovery process. Bowen, a 1986 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was the first Navy Submarine Officer selected by NASA to be a mission specialist. Bowen is a veteran of three space flights, and according to his NASA bio has logged a total of 40 days, 10 hours, 4 minutes and 37 seconds in space, including seven spacewalks of a total of 47 hours and 18 minutes.

“I’m very pleased with what I’ve seen so far,” said Bowen in a statement.
“The reason you do this is to better understand. You realize you don’t have all the answers right now. There will be changes made; things are going to evolve, and they should get better over time.”