NASA sign up US Navy for opening three Orion splashdowns

by Chris Bergin

An agreement has been signed with the United States Navy to provide splashdown recovery support for NASA’s Orion spacecraft through to the crewed Exploration Mission -2 (EM-2). The support will include Navy boat teams and a Landing Platform-Dock (LPD) ship, with two exercises scheduled ahead of the EFT-1 mission.

Orion’s Naval Support:

For the 30 year career of the Space Shuttle, NASA astronauts enjoyed landing on a runway – with a fleet of support vehicles rushing to surround the orbiter moments after initial safing tasks were complete. This was a marked improvement on the ocean splashdowns endured during the early days of the space program.

With NASA refocused on using capsules for their Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) aspirations, astronauts will once again end their missions in deep space by parachuting into the waters off the coast of the United States.

Orion Airbag LandingOriginally, NASA envisioned a return to terra firma, aided by an airbag landing system on the Orion spacecraft.

However, Lockheed Martin were forced to remove this system ahead of their Orion 607 design cycle, as engineers battled to delete mass from the spacecraft, due to performance shortfalls with the Ares I launch vehicle.

The mass deletion effort removed 1,200 lbs from Orion. Unfortunately, the loss of weight proved to be inadequate, as the Orion 607 vehicle then underwent what what was called the “Zero Base Vehicle” effort, in order to “pull out everything, with the minimum capabilities reduced to the single or zero fault tolerance level,” ahead of returning capabilities piece by piece, all while avoiding a breach of their mass properties limitations.

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Prior to the Orion 607 change, the test schedule promoted Orion’s ability to land on both land and water.

Constellation Manifest in 2007, via L2Documentation from around 2007 (L2) pointed to an uncrewed test mission – named “Orion 3” – to conclude with a water landing off the coast of Australia in September 2012, followed by the first crewed flight – “Orion 4” – to be tasked with a land touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

The Constellation Program (CxP) troubles soon saw this schedule become a flight of fantasy, ultimately ending with Orion’s cancellation – prior to its return, first as a lifeboat on the ISS, then under its new call sign as a deep space crew transport.

With the realigned schedule manifesting Orion for a debut trip into space in just over a year’s time, preparations for its recovery are now in full swing.

Orion after splashdownWhile the opening mission will launch Orion atop of a Delta IV-Heavy, the spacecraft’s return will closely mimic its return to Earth from deep space, with Exploration Flight Test -1 (EFT-1) completing its high energy re-entry with a splashdown off the coast of California.

As seen during the pioneering missions of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, the recovery of the capsule will once again see the US Navy provide a key post-mission role, following the signing of an agreement to utilize their assets for the first three Orion missions.

“The recovery training with Navy crews and ships has been underway because the EFT-1 and Exploration Mission (EM)-1 and EM-2 will be water recoveries. An agreement with the Navy has been signed for support of those launches,” noted the minutes from the recent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) meeting.

In preparation for EFT-1, the US Navy will conduct an Orion recovery exercise, scheduled for August 2013 – set to take place at Naval Station Norfolk, in Virginia. The second major test is planned for January 2014 – at Navy Base San Diego in California.

One of the main differences between the old recovery tactics and the techniques to be employed with Orion is the use of a Landing Platform-Dock (LPD) ship. An Aircraft Carrier was used during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo era.

US Navy LPDThe LPD is an amphibious ship that has both a flight deck and a well deck. The well deck is in the lower portion of the ship and has a large door on the stern of the ship that can be opened to support landing craft or other amphibious vehicles.

“This is a new approach and is preferred due to the LPD’s low cost, highly capable tracking radar and ability to launch helicopters from its flight deck,” noted Jim Hamblin, landing and recovery operations manager for NASA Ground Systems Development and Operations.

USS Mesa VerdeThe opening test in Norfolk will involve working with an LPD while docked at the port to perfect the process of bringing in the Orion capsule with the crew aboard.

The test will start at the point in the recovery operation in which the Navy divers – using small, raft-like boats – are ready to approach the capsule.

These small boat teams – staffed by US Navy divers – will also conduct a hazard assessment of the crew module to verify it is safe to approach without personal protection equipment. A large amount of work has already taken place on this element of recovery, from the standpoint of the crew safety and the recovery force’s procedures.

Orion TestAn example of the testing – such as attaching the stabilization collar – took place via the use of an Orion mock-up in the Trident Turn Basin at Port Canaveral. Evaluations were also carried out at JSC’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), allowing Navy dive teams to receive training in the newly-developed recovery procedures.

“The Navy dive teams are crucial to the recovery operation,” Mr Hamblin added. “After the crew module is stabilized, boat teams will attach a winch line from inside the well deck of the ship and start pulling it in. Lines from small boats will also be attached to the spacecraft to bring it to the stern of the Navy ship.”

Orion LPD Test Simulation SlideThat approach of towing Orion into the belly of the LPD will be tested during the two-day operation in August, according to Mr Hamblin.

“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 USS Mesa Verde (LPD-19).”

Orion CradleThe operation involves winching the Orion inside the stern gate of the LPD, under the assistance of the boat teams, who will have tending lines between themselves and the capsule. The Orion will be guided towards a cradle in the well deck.

“Before approaching the recovery cradle, the ship’s stern gate is raised 45 degrees to calm the waters inside the well deck,” added Mr Hamblin. “The crew module is then positioned over the cradle, and the well deck is drained to seat the spacecraft into the cradle.”

Next up will be the four-day Underway Recovery Test, scheduled for the start of 2014, around six months prior to the EFT-1 mission.

“This will be the walk, then run phase conducted on the LPD USS San Diego at sea on the west coast near San Diego,” said Hamblin. “Its purpose is to evaluate hardware and recovery processes in progressively more challenging environments to determine capability limits.”

These two tests will naturally mature into real mission scenario of EFT-1’s recovery operation, again off the coast of California.

Once the EFT-1 Orion is recovered, USS San Diego will head back to port, docking alongside the pier in Long Beach, California. The EFT-1 Orion will then be towed from the well deck to a barge, allowing for the handover to Lockheed Martin, the Orion prime contractor, for required post-flight operations.

USS San DiegoIt is likely the USS San Diego (LPD-22) will be the ship of choice for at least the early part of NASA’s exploration roadmap.

The San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock was commissioned just last year and she recently entered active service.

Following EFT-1, the teams will have one more full dress rehearsal with the EM-1 mission in 2017, prior to EM-2’s debut use of a crew on board the Orion.

All the procedures and technical challenges will need to be ironed out prior to this mission, ensuring the vehicle – and more importantly the crew – are safely recovered from the Pacific Ocean.

(Images: L2’s Orion and SLS Special Sections, and NASA)

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