PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
The 45th Operations Group Detachment 3 recently coordinated and participated in an Underway Recovery Test-5 (URT-5) at sea off the coast of California as part of a U.S. government interagency effort to safely retrieve the Orion crew module that is capable of carrying humans into deep space.
Known as U.S. Strategic Command’s Human Space Flight Support Office, Det. 3 teamed up throughout 2016 with the Navy, Coast Guard and NASA through numerous planning and technical interchanges to prepare and evaluate the training curriculum and execution objectives before heading out to sea for the URT-5 in October.
“What the Department of Defense units do is test the ability to recover the capsule into the well deck ship using new hardware and equipment that was built based on lessons learned from previous recovery tests and Exploration Flight Test-1,” said Brent Maney, Det. 3 Space Medical Contingency Specialist, who deployed with the team aboard the USS San Diego. “Our secondary objectives included the capability of working with new equipment and techniques developed in September to test stages of egressing crew members.”
According to the Navy, lessons learned are being used to improve the recovery process and ensure that the combined NASA and Navy team will be able to safely and successfully recover the Orion capsule following its flight for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) scheduled for 2018.
“For me it was a lot of fun being part of the testing because I was on board this ship when we did the first URT and took the test capsule out to sea in February 2014,” said the USS San Diego Commanding Officer Capt. Carl W. Meuser. “On that trip these smart folks from NASA were able to collect data and understand the environment much better and they designed systems accordingly. So it’s been fun for me to see the progression of NASA’s project from the first time we went to sea together to this very successful testing that we just finished.”
With their main role of conducting amphibious operations, San Antonio-class ships have many unique capabilities that make them an ideal partner to support NASA. The most important capability was the ability to recover the test capsule using the ship’s well deck, which is originally designed to launch and recover amphibious craft. The San Diego also has the ability to carry and deploy multiple small boats that aid in the recovery process and contains an advanced medical facility for the returning astronauts.
“Air Force Pararescue worked alongside Navy divers with new attachment points, horse collar, stabilization collar and a porch used for egressing the crew at sea,” said Maney. “This was an extremely successful mission and we look forward to follow up events to further develop rescue and egress concepts.”
URT-5 testing consisted of launching the test capsule from the well deck then carefully maneuvering the ship alongside the capsule at a slow speed. Then, divers attached lines from the small boats to steady and guide the capsule toward San Diego, where a NASA-designed winch hauled the capsule into the well deck.
“It’s very challenging, what seems like a basic recovery is anything but,” said Chief Petty Officer Beau Lontine, a navy diver assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 3. “It’s a very high risk evolution, especially when the capsule is being towed behind the ship, and that’s where our inputs to the equipment that they’ve designed for this come into play. That’s what we do, we work with rigging and hardware and we do build up and training to get to the point of recovering the capsule.”
Det. 3 is responsible for coordinating astronaut rescue and recovery, contingency and nominal landing site support, payload security, medical support, coordination of airlift and sealift, as well as other support services required in the event of a spacecraft emergency.
URT-5 allowed NASA and the Navy to continue to demonstrate and evaluate the recovery processes, procedures, hardware, and personnel in a real open ocean environment before conducting actual recovery operations for EM-1 and, with additional coordination, subsequent exploration missions.
“This was a proof of concept URT, which means we were testing hypotheses that we had developed over the last year, along with some prototype hardware,” said NASA’s Landing and Recovery Director, Melissa Jones. “I’m happy to say that it was very successful and we have a lot of data going forward to figure out what our next test will be.”
According to Jones, the next test will take place aboard another seasoned NASA recovery ship, USS Anchorage (LPD 23). Future tests will eventually get NASA and the Navy to arrive at a safe and more efficient way to recover the capsule for the 2021 mission involving a flying crew.
The Orion spacecraft is designed to meet the evolving needs of our nation’s deep space exploration program for decades to come. It will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.
(Editor's note: The U.S. Navy contributed to this article)