While public attention is focused on the upcoming launch of the Exploration Flight Test -1 (EFT-1) Orion, the US Navy is preparing for the spacecraft’s splashdown at the conclusion of the test mission. The USS Anchorage and the USNS Salvor will be involved in the first of the three contracted Orion returns that will be spread over the next 10 years.
The EFT-1 mission has now passed all of its major reviews ahead of flight, with the United Launch Alliance EFT-1 Program Management Readiness Review and Lockheed Martin EFT-1 Readiness Review – also known as the “presidents” review – conducted on November 20.
The passing of these reviews confirms three open items from an earlier Test Flight Readiness Review (TFRR) – relating to mitigation of water immersion of Orion harness connectors, FAA license approval of final vehicle trajectory and Ground Systems Development Office (GSDO) completion of recovery and transport planning – are no longer an issue.
Next up is the ULA Mission Dress Rehearsal on November 25.
Processing with what is now a stacked rocket and spacecraft at Cape Canaveral’s SLC-37 is ongoing, ahead of the December 4 launch date, which continues to have a number of contingency margin days built into the flow.
The next key meeting will be the Launch Readiness Review (LRR) that will take place just prior to launch day.
While that historic launch day for Orion fast approaches on the East Coast, the US Navy is preparing to play its part on the West Coast.
Preparations have been taking place over the past two year, with Orion recovery exercises taking place at the Naval Station Norfolk, in Virginia and the Navy Base San Diego in California.
For Orion, the Navy will make use of a Landing Platform-Dock (LPD) ship, taking over the role of an Aircraft Carrier that were used as the base of recovery operations during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo era.
The 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.
The Navy’s USS Mesa Verde (LPD-19) and USS San Diego have been involved in the test runs for EFT-1’s recovery. For the actual mission, USS Anchorage (LPD-23) will be assisted by the USNS Salvor.
However, it is thought that the USS San Diego (LPD-22) will be the ship of choice for at least the early part of NASA’s exploration roadmap.
An agreement was 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 latter mission is now expected to take place closer to 2025.
The USS San Diego – a San Antonio-class ship – has only recently entered active and is currently busy on operations in the Red Sea according to her Twitter feed.
As such, the USS Anchorage is taking center stage during EFT-1.
She will be joined by the USNS Salvor – a Safeguard-class rescue and salvage ship. She was transferred to the Military Sealift Command on January 12, 2007, and is now manned by a civilian crew and a US Navy detachment.
While US Navy assets in the water will provide key support, the Navy will also be supporting EFT-1 in the air.
Known as the “Eightballers” of HSC-8, the team operate within US Navy’s 3rd Fleet’s area of responsibility, with their missions including vertical lift search and rescue, logistics, anti-surface warfare, special operations forces support, and combat search and rescue.
The Navy note HSC-8 will embark NASA engineers on two MH-60S Knighthawks to film and monitor the re-entry and recovery of Orion using state of the art debris tracking software and video equipment.
Aside from documenting the initial test phase of this event, NASA will use data gathered from the mission to evaluate parachute deployments and debris patterns to refine Orion’s design prior to the manned launch.
During the return, Orion’s two drogue parachutes will deploy first at 22,000 feet.
The next sequence involves the three pilot parachutes that pull out the three massive main parachutes when Orion is still 6,500 feet above the Pacific Ocean.
The chutes will complete the decrease in velocity, allowing for Orion to splashdown on the ocean’s surface at less than 17 mph (27 kph).
Once Orion hits the water, US Navy divers will be deployed in Zodiac boats, allowing them to check for any hazards around Orion.
Once in position with Orion, they will attach a sea anchor, load-distributing collar and tether lines to the crew module, and work to guide it to the ship’s well deck.
The crew module will be winched into the flooded well deck of the USS Anchorage and placed on rubber shock absorbers. Water will be drained from the well deck, leaving Orion secure and dry.
The ship will then begin the journey back to shore.
Meanwhile, the USNS Salvor and rigid-hull inflatable boats will be used to secure and recover Orion’s forward bay cover and parachutes using her cranes.
The EFT-1 Orion will 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.
The hardware will first be transported to a pier at the US Naval Base San Diego.
After the crew module is secured in the recovery transportation fixture, nicknamed the Armadillo, the Orion crew module and hardware will be transported by truck to KSC, where the crew module will be prepared for use in Orion’s Ascent Abort-2 test.
(Images: Via US Navy, Lockheed Martin and NASA).
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