DoD practices Starliner at sea recovery for first time

by Chris Gebhardt

In a critical first for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule, the crew transportation vehicle is putting DoD and Air Force rescue teams through their paces as they seek to understand and refine what will be needed to rescue a Starliner crew from the capsule should an off-nominal landing in the water occur.

Starliner at sea rescue practice/process:

The test is a critical part of Starliner’s certification to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule went through similar tests last year, and NASA has conducted similar exercises with its Orion spacecraft.

Starliner itself will nominally land on land in the American southwest, but in-flight aborts/off-nominal emergency returns from orbit will/could result in Starliner splashing down in the ocean.

Despite the planned difference in an off-nominal vs. nominal landing of Starliner, the equipment sea rescue personnel would use for Starliner is the same as it is for Dragon and Orion.

Teams arrive at Starliner to begin assessing its condition. [Credit: Chris Gebhardt for NSF/L2]

After Starliner splashes down in the ocean and members of the 304th Rescue Squadron reach the spacecraft, the first thing the team will assess is the orientation of the craft.

If Starliner has landed upside down or tipped upside down after landing, the first and foremost action will be the right the spacecraft.

This process was not described in detail, but Air Force Major Marcus Maris, DoD (Department of Defense) Human Space Flight Support Office Rescue Division Chief, and Captain Paul Fry, 304th RQS Assistant Director of Operations, iterated that the team – while novices for such a practice on Starliner – have practiced the basics of the procedure on both Orion and Dragon.

Moreover, part of today’s test – this afternoon – will be purposefully capsizing the Starliner mockup so teams can practice the righting process.

Once the capsule is righted, or if it lands in the correct upright orientation, the next order of business would be for rescue teams to gauge the stability of the craft in the given sea states (wave heights, winds, etc.).

If warranted, the rescue team will deploy a stabilization collar around the base of Starliner to help control the craft during rescue operations.

Teams attach the stabilization collar to Starliner during the first part of at sea rescue trials. [Credit: Chris Gebhardt for NSF/L2]

The collar would be deployed by divers, wrapped around the base of Starliner, the orange cords/lines on the collar attached to the spaceship, and the collar then inflated using scuba tanks.

The rescue divers/team would use the same stabilization collard for Starliner as they will for Dragon.

The collars have differently colored cords/lines, with orange being used for Starliner and blue being used for SpaceX.

This was built into the design so that the rescue equipment is as standardized as possible between the three U.S. crew spacecraft.

Only Orion has a different stabilization collar simply because of how much larger its base is then Dragon’s and Starliner’s.

After the stabilization collar is attached, rescue teams will deploy and inflate the “Front Porch”, a specially-built life raft that will deploy in front of Starliner’s side hatch.

The Front Porch has enough room and can carry enough supplies (food, water, medical) to support 4 Starliner crewmembers and the 9-person rescue dive team for up to 72 hours.

Like the stabilization collar, the Front Porch for Starliner is the same as the one that would be used for Dragon and Orion off-nominal water landing rescues.

The Front Porch is inflated in front of Starliner. [Credit: Chris Gebhardt for NSF/L2]

Once the Front Porch is deployed, crews will then open Starliner’s side hatch and begin assessing and extracting the crew.

If for some reason the side hatch cannot be physically opened or cannot be safely opened to due water intrusion concerns from high seas, rescue teams can open the top hatch to reach and extract the crew.

The crew would then take refuge in the Front Porch life raft with the 9-member dive team to await evacuation back to a ship or land.

The first part of the test today went well and was conducted inside the middle basin at Port Canaveral on the Air Force-controlled side of the port.

Based on lessons learned from today’s first test, Major Marcus Maris and Captain Paul Fry hope to proceed to open ocean tests by the end of this week.

Those open ocean tests will occur roughly 10 miles off shore of Cape Canaveral.

NASA at sea rescue requirements for Starliner, Dragon, and Orion:

While today’s test was the first in-water practice run for Starliner at sea rescue, it represents a much larger DoD commitment to space crew rescue operations – universal procedures that would be followed for Starliner, Dragon, and Orion.

Starliner launches atop an Atlas V N22 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, carrying new crewmembers to the International Space Station (Credit: Nathan Koga, for NSF/L2).

During ascent for Starliner, Dragon, and Orion, the 304th Rescue Squadron will have two teams stationed along the east coast of the United States, one at Patrick Air Force Base (just South of the Cape) and the other in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Patrick team, Rescue 1, will be responsible for on-pad aborts that place a capsule in the water or for aborts in the first couple minutes of flight that place the capsule within a 200 nautical mile zone from the Cape.

After that distance is exceeded, the Charleston crew (Rescue 2) would be responsible for rescue of a launch-aborting crew vehicle anywhere else across the Atlantic.

The third team, stationed in Hawai’i, (also part of Rescue 2) would be responsible for any after-launch immediate landing need or off-nominal Station return contingency that places a Starliner or Dragon in the Pacific.

If an off-nominal from orbit return occurred with splashdown in the Atlantic, an emergency ocean return within 200 nautical miles of Cape Canaveral would fall to Rescue 1.

Any other Atlantic splashdown would fall to Rescue 2 from Charleston because they have more powerful aircraft that could reach Starliner or Dragon or Orion quicker than the Patrick support craft.

Rescue 1 carries a requirement to have a crew en route back to land within 6 hours of splashdown.

Rescue 2 carries a requirement to have the hatch on a capsule opened within 24 hours of splashdown and a crew evacuated (via helicopter or ship) from the sea landing area within 72 hours of hatch open.

These sea rescue operations are led by the 45th Ops Group Detachment 3 – Human Spaceflight Support Office – at Cape Canaveral, in coordination with NASA.

The main diving rescue force is the 304th Rescue Squadron based in Portland, Oregon – which is part of the 920th Rescue Wing based at Patrick Air Force Base, FL.

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