After spending a long period of time traveling in the vacuum of space, astronauts returning to Earth will enter the Earth’s atmosphere at over 20,000 mph and splashdown in the middle of the ocean. Their mission will not be deemed successful, however, until they safely make it back to land, and astronauts at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston recently spent three days practicing safe exit strategies for their return from deep space in the Orion spacecraft.
NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) is a 6.2-million-gallon pool at JSC, used to train astronauts for spacewalks and provide a mock-up inside the International Space Station. The NBL is also an excellent place for astronauts to practice exit strategies because it provides a controlled environment where the Orion recovery team can practice different ways of assisting astronauts out of a test version of the crew module. The series of tests took place from Oct. 6–8 to evaluate the most efficient way for astronauts to safely exit Orion.
Orion is America’s next generation spacecraft meant to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit, with NASA hoping to one day fly it with crews to Mars. Launched off the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, Orion will provide astronauts with the means necessary to survive long duration space missions and keep them safe from launch until landing, serving as the crew’s launch and re-entry, descent, and landing vehicle.
“When astronauts come back to Earth in Orion following the first crewed flight, they will have been away for long periods of time, so we want to be prepared to get them out of the spacecraft quickly in a variety of scenarios,” explained Tom Walker, rescue and recovery lead for Orion. “The work we’re doing this week allows us to test out crew egress procedures using a mockup of Orion in the water.”
During the three days of testing, recovery personnel simulated arriving to a spacecraft floating in the Pacific Ocean and discovered what they will need when assisting a crew out of the real thing. They evaluated the layout of the equipment inside the spacecraft that might interfere with the exit and they also evaluated the recovery gear.
Before Orion took off on its maiden voyage on Exploration Flight Test (EFT)- 1, NASA used the NBL facility to explore the different ways the recovery team could approach and safely harness Orion after splashdown. They also developed uprighting procedures to be done manually should there be a problem.
NASA’s Orion and the Ground Systems Development and Operations programs practiced the procedures and evaluated their efficiency. Additionally, a team encompassing specially trained rescue personnel from several branches in the Department of Defense (DoD) is provided their insight into how to safely recover the crew. Ways to recover the crew if they are injured or incapacitated were also explored.
EFT-1 laid the foundation for the development and execution of recovery procedures. After the successful launch, flight, and landing, the recovery of Orion after the mission provided more useful insight. The lessons learned from EFT-1 will be modified and put to the test during Exploration Mission (EM) -1 when Orion takes flight atop the SLS rocket. EM-1 will be the first mission of the new launch vehicle and send Orion farther out into the vastness of space.
“Even though recovery of the first Orion crew is a few years away, testing early allows us to gather data to develop hardware and train our DoD forces,” explained GSDO Recovery Director Melissa Jones. Doing this in a controlled environment like the NBL allows for familiarization of the hardware before transitioning to open water operations.”
Astronauts coming back from deep space aboard Orion will be outfitted in Modified Advanced Crew Escape (MACE) spacesuits. The test subjects, consisting of engineers and astronauts, were not wearing the MACE spacesuits during the evaluations. Instead, they wore garments and gear that limited their mobility in a similar fashion as the MACE spacesuit would. This made the scenario more realistic as astronauts will have a hard time maneuvering while wearing bulky and heavy spacesuits.
“We’re including some astronauts who have flown in space in our training because they understand the effects of space and how you feel when you come back to Earth and can provide a helpful perspective,” Walker explained. “We are also getting some of the engineers working on subsystems involved in recovery to be test subjects because it gives them insight into ways to improve those subsystems.”
This training also provided insight for NASA’s Commercial Crew partners, Boeing and SpaceX. Both companies are developing commercial spaceflight systems and landing operations for astronauts traveling to and from the International Space Station.
“We want to enable our partners to capitalize in any way they can on NASA’s work,” said Tim O’Brien, a member of the Ground and Mission Operations Office for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “By applying what we learned here from Orion, Boeing and SpaceX could possibly refine their own procedures for the safe and efficient recovery of our astronauts.”
There are many factors that could affect the way the crew is recovered after Orion returns from deep space. Weather, the crew’s health, and the condition of the recovery team and gear in real-time must all be considered. The spacecraft will be towed into the well deck of a U.S. naval amphibious transport ship as the primary recovery method.
Last year, EFT-1 culminated with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean and a recovery by the USS Anchorage (LPD-23), a U.S. Navy vessel. AmericaSpace highlighted the EFT-1 Orion recovery in an article by Emily Carney. In her article, Carney noted “the USNS Salvor (a rescue and salvage ship) along with NASA’s drone Ikhana (and several U.S. Navy planes and helicopters) also aided in the recovery.”
According to NASA, flooding the well deck of the ship will allow the spacecraft to be towed inside. Once inside, the well deck will then be drained to let Orion sit on a stable surface. Using this method, the crew will be able to exit Orion and directly move onto the hard platform.
In a worst-case scenario without rescue personnel a crew could stay aboard Orion for up to 24 hours after splashdown. The spacecraft is equipped with a raft and emergency supplies including water, tools, and signaling mirrors. Astronauts will have the ability to exit the spacecraft on their own if they need to leave it immediately. Tests on how well crew members can leave the spacecraft and get into a raft by themselves (without the help of recovery personnel) were also being evaluated.
Also critical for astronaut safety and mission success are two major subsystems developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne- the crew module reaction control system (RCS) and the jettison motor. Aerojet announced the completion of the critical design review (CDR) for these two on Oct. 9. The company can now move forward with manufacturing the hardware for installation into Orion for EM-1 in 2018.
“Astronaut safety is paramount and the jettison motor and the crew module reaction control system will ensure the crew begins their mission into deep space and lands at the completion without harm,” said Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Advanced Space and Launch Programs business unit.
The jettison motor aboard Orion is a solid rocket motor that removes the launch abort system from the spacecraft five seconds after fairing separation. It also serves a “double duty” if a problem occurs. In the event of an emergency, the jettison motor is one of three solid rocket motors on Orion’s launch abort system that will immediately jerk the capsule away from the rocket.
After separation from the service module, course control authority can only be provided by the RCS on the crew module. The RCS makes certain that the heat shield is oriented properly, the crew module is stable underneath the parachutes and that the capsule is oriented correctly for splashdown. The RCS went through a redesign in October 2013 and was confirmed to work successfully after EFT-1; however, the company will be delivering a significantly enhanced version of the RCS system flown on EFT-1 to Lockheed sometime next year. Some of the design changes, as noted by Aeroject Rocketdyne, include: “increasing the structural capability to withstand more severe aero-thermal environments during re-entry of the crew module into Earth’s atmosphere; and reducing overall mass of the system.” Besides verifying the new design, the successful CDR on EFT-1 also verified and confirmed the use of manufacturing technology in the construction of engine components.
“Successful critical design reviews for the jettison motor and the crew module reaction system represent the culmination of several years of disciplined engineering and development work that required perseverance and dedication to meet the level of rigor necessary for human space flight programs,” said Van Kleeck. “Sending humans beyond deep space is becoming increasingly closer as progress on Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS) continues for the 2018 launch.”
The next flight of Orion will be an uncrewed mission sometime in 2018. The first crewed mission of Orion is expected to take flight no earlier than 2023. Though NASA isn’t expected to be flying humans aboard Orion for at least another eight years, the agency and their contracting partners are working tirelessly to prepare for the next era of human spaceflight.
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