Navy Preparing for First Splashdown Recovery of NASA Spacecraft in Decades

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According to a story in, NASA is arranging for the United States Navy for the first ocean recovery of a space agency manned spacecraft since the end of the Apollo program, almost 40 years ago.

The seemingly back to the future arrangement, after decades of space shuttle landings at air fields, is already being conducted by the private sector, as witnessed in missions by the SpaceX Dragon to the International Space Station, which were also recovered on the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.

Navy recovery fleet to use a Landing Platform Dock ship

In order to pluck an Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle out of the ocean, the Navy will use a Landing Platform Dock (LPD) ship that can deploy helicopters and Navy dive teams, according to The contemplated recovery operation would involve Navy divers approaching a splashed downed Orion in motorized boats and attaching a stabilization collar and then a winch line. The idea is that the Orion would then be towed into the well deck of the LPD so that it can be taken back to port. Orion splashdown tests have already been conducted by NASA. The Navy will conduct its own tests in advance of the first flight of the Orion, scheduled for 2014.

Approach different than during the Apollo era

The simple and cheap approach being planned for Orion spaceflight stands in contrast to splashdown recovery operations that were conducted for NASA missions through the Apollo program. According, a helicopter carrier with escort ships were used to locate and then recover spacecraft once they had landed in the ocean. Navy divers were deployed by helicopter to extract the crews and hoist them into the helicopter. Then the spacecraft was plucked out of the ocean and then carried back to the helicopter carrier where it was placed in a hanger for transport.

SpaceX Dragon already splashed down

The SpaceX Dragon, currently being used to transport cargo to and from the International Space Station, is landing on the water at the end of each mission. The on how at the end of its last mission, the Dragon deployed parachutes and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. A specially designed ship with a crane plucked the Dragon and its cargo out of the water and took it back to the Port of Long Beach.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.

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