Orion sails through successful test with aid of Navy’s U.S.S. Anchorage
NASA is ramping up preparations for the planned December 18 launch of the space agency’ new human-rated spacecraft, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle for its first test flight. To help achieve the numerous requirements laid out for the flight, NASA tapped engineers, technicians and sailors – to accomplish one of the pivotal elements of the flight – the spacecraft’s return.
After lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket Orion will conduct two orbits of the Earth, going out to some 3,600 miles ( 5,793.638 kilometers). It will then come home – at a blistering 20,000 miles per hour (32,186.88 kilometers). If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will splash down in the Pacific Ocean. It’s been almost four decades since the last time the U.S. Navy has had to recover a crew-rated spacecraft from the vast blue that is the Pacific. NASA and the U.S. Navy have opted to prep sailors and divers for the big event.
A variety of different scenarios could play out on that day. To prepare, many of these scenarios were rehearsed using a mockup of Orion on Aug. 2-3 via the U.S.S. Anchorage. If Orion proves itself, survives temperatures approaching 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the U.S. Navy has been tasked with recovering Orion off the Southern California Coast and return it to shore. This recent test was dubbed the Underway Recovery Test 2.
“We learned a lot about our hardware, gathered good data, and the test objectives were achieved,” said Mike Generale, NASA recovery operations manager in the Ground Systems Development and Operations Program. “We were able to put Orion out to sea and safely bring it back multiple times. We are ready to move on to the next step of our testing with a full dress rehearsal landing simulation on the next test.”
Tapped to conduct this element of the mission was the Department of Defense’s Human Space Flight Support Detachment 3, along with Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin. An array of different techniques were practiced to recover Orion, which weighs some 20,500 lbs (9298.6436 kg).
This same group conducted a similar recovery test this past February. Lessons learned during the previous test indicated new hardware and methods might be beneficial. The recovery team tested out those elements this past week. One of the most notable was the use of a crane as opposed to having Orion recovered through the well deck, which involves having a section of the recovery vessel be flooded (the naval vessel is designed to have this section flooded).
“Anchorage provided a unique, validated capability to support NASA’s request for operational support without adversely impacting the Navy’s primary warfighting mission,” said Cmdr. Joel Stewart, commanding officer of the Navy vessel. “This unique mission gave Anchorage sailors an opportunity to hone their skills for the routine missions of recovering vehicles in the well deck and operating rigid-hulled inflatable boats in the open water while supporting NASA. The testing with NASA was a success and Anchorage sailors continue to raise the bar, completing missions above and beyond any expectations.”
NASA currently plans to conduct the first flight of the launch vehicle tapped to deliver Orion to orbit, the Space Launch System or “SLS” in 2017 (with a 2018 launch far more likely). This flight will be uncrewed and will be the precursor to the first crewed flight of Orion and SLS, currently scheduled for 2021.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.