NASA, U.S. military practice for Orion space program rescues

For the first time in nearly 40 years, NASA and the Department of Defense collaborated this week on the test recovery of a space capsule.

The practice session Thursday at Naval Station Norfolk involved Navy personnel in inflatable boats on the Elizabeth River reeling in a capsule and towing it to a warship, which served as an amphibious transport dock.

The operation was designed to prepare the Navy and NASA for the recovery of astronauts aboard the Orion, the spacecraft that’s seen as the next step in the exploration of deep space.

“It’s a pretty historic start to the program,” said Scott Wilson, a NASA official who’s involved in the Orion program.

The Orion someday will take astronauts into deep space, a realm unexplored by humans. Destinations might include Mars and an asteroid. The first mission, which will be unmanned, is planned for September 2014.

NASA considers the space capsule recovered when it’s secured and drained of water. The draining process might take as long as 40 minutes. The entire recovery process takes about two hours, fast enough to prevent a crew from overheating after suit-cooling functions are turned off upon re-entry. The ideal body temperature for crew members is considered 100.5 degrees.

The recovery testing allows NASA and naval teams to evaluate and practice the procedures before they take the drill into the open waters of the Pacific Ocean next year near San Diego.

“We have what we refer to as a ‘crawl, walk, run strategy,’ ” Wilson said.

NASA is working with the Defense Department in the recovery testing for the first time since the Apollo programs in 1975. The waters on the river throughout the testing weren’t choppy, but rough seas might be in play when the capsule is put down in the Pacific.

The calm conditions were by design, said Jim Hamblin, the landing and operations manager of NASA’s ground systems development and operations program, in order to first test recovery operations when the risks were minimal.