A joint team from NASA’s Orion and Ground Systems Development and Operations programs, along with the Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force, spent July 10-14 practicing crew egress procedures off Galveston, Texas to get astronauts out of the deep space crew capsule after splashing down under parachutes in the Pacific Ocean on return from their missions beginning in the mid 2020s.
“Astronauts returning to Earth in Orion will have spent many days in space, and we want to make sure the last part of their journey goes smoothly no matter what kind of conditions they land in,” said Tom Walker, rescue and recovery lead for Orion at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “Our testing in the Gulf of Mexico gives us an opportunity to practice and evaluate our plans and hardware for how to get crew out of Orion as safely and efficiently as possible.”
Getting out of the spacecraft and back on dry land safely might sound easy, but a number of things could go wrong, and astronauts returning from deep space missions will need time to become used to feeling 1G gravity again, so multiple methods to get the crew out are being developed and evaluated.
On a nominal retrieval, small boats of Navy personnel will arrive soon after landing to assist astronauts as they exit through Orion’s side hatch and onto rafts, then taken back (with the spacecraft) to a Naval ship waiting nearby.
Unfortunately life isn’t nominal, so crews are training to be ready for worst case scenarios such as Orion splashing down off course where recovery teams cannot arrive quickly, or water intruding into the crew module before they arrive, because the bottom line is that astronauts must be prepared to get out of the spacecraft alone if they need to.
Orion can therefore support a crew after splashdown for 24 hours, and will be equipped with a raft and additional emergency supplies such as water, tools and signaling mirrors, just in case the astronauts end up in a situation where recovery teams are not immediately available to help.
“Astronauts and engineering test subjects wore Orion Crew Survival System spacesuits, modified versions of NASA’s orange Advanced Crew Escape suits in development for use during Orion launch and entry, making the testing as true to mission scenarios as possible,” said NASA.
NASA, the Air Force, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard held one of their first astronaut rescue exercises of the commercial crew era off of Florida’s “Space Coast” in March 2016 too, which helped Guardian Angel airmen with the Cape’s local 920th Rescue Wing an opportunity to refine existing techniques they will use to rescue astronauts during a spacecraft landing contingency.
Read my exclusive sit down interview with the 45th Space Wing in late 2015 HERE, where we discuss their plans for supporting American human spaceflight ops off Florida’s coast again in the coming years.