Spaceflight Insider

Orion sails through successful test with aid of Navy’s U.S.S. Anchorage

NASA tested out a variety of means to recover one of the space agency's Orion spacecraft. These tests were conducted on Aug.2-3 with the aid of the U.S. Navy's USS Anchorage. Photo Credit: NASA

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 new system of recovering Orion, utilizing a winch, was tested out during the Underway Recovery Test 2. Photo Credit: NASA

A new system of recovering Orion, utilizing a winch, was tested out during the Underway Recovery Test 2. Photo Credit: NASA

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.

Photo Credit: NASA

Photo Credit: NASA


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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,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments


This whole ORION program should be cancelled as soon as possible. Billions of taxpayers money down the drain. SpaceX already developed the Dragon2 more advanced crew spacecraft. Crazy to develop the same thing twice. Or someone please explain this to me. I don’t understand.

Orion is for deep space on the heavy lift SLS. Space X is for low orbit space station only flights. Why does everyone think Space X is so great, I know several people who work for spacex, they say it is the worst aerospace company ever. Excessive long hours, hazardous conditions and the constant threat of being fired daily. Spacex has a lousy launch on time record as well, lowest in the industry. Boeing and Sierra Nevada also have capsules that are just as good if not better than Spacex’s


Hi Tom, thanks for your reply. As I understood from the Dragon V2 specs it is specifically designed for truster landing on other planets and moons. Your statement that SpaceX is for low orbit space station only flights is not accurate. SpaceX’ goal is to facilitate permanent settlement of humanity on Mars and beyond.

I don’t know about yourself, but I was working every waking hour on my passion when I was 20 something years old. It just takes long hours indeed to accomplish exceptional things. I can well imagine SpaceX is not for everybody. Only the most passionate and prepared to work their buts off. But hey, that’s what it takes. SpaceX is boldly going where no man has gone before.

I’ve been in the aerospace business for over 30 years, my colleagues and myself who have excelled in this business will not stoop to the level of even thinking about working for SpaceX. If it wasn’t for the Obama administration, they wouldn’t be near as far as they are. The administration gives them preferential treatment and unfair advantages over other competitors. The media builds them up while they criticize every one else. A lot of the advances they claim are stretched truth’s and exaggerated data. No disrespect, you either haven’t done your homework or have drank the Kool-Aid.
Yes , your right, SpaceX is not for everyone, and yes, long hours may be needed. But Space X abuses their employees;i.e. not letting someone off work to attend their child’s graduation or other family events. Like I said, I know several people who work for space X, and the stories of abuse are endless. The Industrial age is over, I’m really surprised a Union hasn’t been knocking on their door.


Hi Tom, thanks for clarifications. I don’t know enough details of the so called abuses to be able to judge them, you probably hear only one side of each story. In The Netherlands where I live, we have these employment contracts which are very specifically listing each case in which an employee has a right to leave, so each family event that grants leave is mentioned. Any other leave is not permitted. So you know in advance your rights. I can only guess that this is no different from a SpaceX contract that specifies what your rights are. If you can not agree with this contract, you should not start working there in the first place. When you forgot to read the small print, then don’t complain afterwards. And I can imagine there is stress and tension at SpaceX that sometimes leads to conflicts. I wouldn’t be surprised, but I do understand the cause. But in the end everything must be within reason of cause. And real abuse we must fight. That we agree upon.

Until we have a US-made and launched, manned spacecraft that can dock with the ISS and return to Earth there should not be anything spent on Orion or SLS. Only IF development of the low-earth orbit manned spacecraft were fully funded, should SLS and a deep-space manned spacecraft be considered for funding. In my opinion fully funding low-earth means a combination of public/private funding sufficient to develop at least 3 designs to achieve 2 successful flight-proven spacecraft. Funding should be at such a level that a lack of funds is not the cause of schedule delays. Every US astronaut launched by Russia consumes valuable resources that should have been used for US manned spacecraft development.

Until we solve the problem of keeping humans alive for long durations in space, there is no point developing a deep space manned spacecraft. First telescopes both Earth-based, and space-based (information at the speed of light), then robotic probes and rovers are much more cost effective at gaining scientific knowledge about the universe at all levels beyond Earth.

Until we develop a rocket engine that can convert poop into fuel with a high specific impulse, it is better to use rocket fuel to bring back material samples from other worlds instead of moving food, toilet paper, and radiation shielding throughout the solar system.

Scotty Congress has decreed that SLS & Orion be built & launched. They have devoted funds to this. The NASA folks have no choice but to have it built or resign their jobs. As the old saying goes, “Well, as long as I’m getting paid”….

Tom A company like SpaceX often reflects the dreams of it’s founder. Musk ended up divorced, had spent his last dime & worked hundreds maybe thousands of hours overtime(without pay) before NASA bailed him out. So, if you’re not willing to sacrifice just as much as he did, then, you don’t have the guts to sacrifice it all. So you should be working for another more employee friendly company. In time his company will learn to be more employee friendly. But, until then he is driven to succeed. Perhaps that is what is needed for U.S. human spaceflight, a John Jacob Astor personality.


ART, your words are true in my opinion. You must be darn passionate and work darn hard to achieve bad-ass things. But that is no problem if you have real passion. Then you’d love doing exactly that. If your real passion is elsewhere or you lack this passion, go elsewhere, better for you. So this warning to anyone applying at SpaceX or Tesla: your have to put your soul into it. Be warned!


Congress would be my favorite audience for this message. I don’t know how directly and clearly NASA has been communicating to congress and the administrations about proper spending priorities for the next generation manned US spacecraft since 2003 when shuttle was condemned to end when ISS was complete. Even if the best of communicating were done, I don’t know if congress would have pulled enough pork out of their ears to be listening carefully. I hear what you are saying about getting paid – how many NASA leaders weighed the risk to their pay checks to argue this point? Hmmm, I’ve probably said enough myself.

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