NORFOLK, Va. — During the glory days of the space program in the 1960s and ’70s, astronauts returning to Earth splashed down at sea in their capsules and were picked up by the Navy in a triumphant moment that became a familiar scene to American TV viewers. Now, NASA and the Navy are training again for the first such recovery in more than a generation.
On Thursday, a team of Navy divers and the crew of the USS Arlington retrieved an unmanned mock-up of Orion, NASA’s next-generation space capsule, from the waters off Norfolk.
It was the first test of how the U.S. intends to recover astronauts upon their return from deep space aboard Orion, which is being developed for missions to an asteroid and Mars.
In a statement, Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of Navy’s U.S. Fleet Forces Command, welcomed the chance to take part again in recovering NASA crew members, “just as we did nearly a half-century ago in support of America’s quest to put a man on the moon.”
From 1961 to 1975, teams of Navy ships tracked and recovered Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft after they re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down.
Frogmen would swim up to the pitching, bobbing spacecraft and help the astronauts out. Then helicopters would hoist them and their capsule and fly them to a waiting aircraft carrier.
After Apollo ended, U.S. astronauts began flying the space shuttle, which returns to Earth on a landing strip like an airplane. With the end of that program in 2011, astronauts began hitching rides aboard Russia’s Soyuz capsule, which parachutes to a landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan.
Now, the Navy and NASA have to dust off their old recovery playbook and update several parts of it to do something they haven’t done since 1975.
In a break with the past, the Navy doesn’t plan to use helicopters to retrieve Orion. Instead, small boat teams will attach a winch line to Orion and tow it into an amphibious transport ship’s well deck, a compartment that can be deliberately flooded. Once the spacecraft is inside the ship, the well deck will be drained, allowing the astronauts to step out of the capsule.
More training and testing of the recovery procedure are planned in the coming years. Astronauts will not fly into space aboard Orion until 2021 at the earliest.
One of the earliest splashdowns for the U.S. space program nearly ended in tragedy: In 1961, the Liberty Bell 7 capsule carrying Gus Grissom sank to the bottom of the Atlantic, apparently after the hatch blew prematurely, and Grissom almost drowned. The capsule was finally raised in 1999.
In 1962, Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter’s Aurora 7 overshot its target in the Atlantic by 250 miles and all contact with him was lost for about a half-hour. By the time rescuers spotted him, he had climbed out of his listing spacecraft and into his life raft.
SpaceX, a private company that has sent three of its Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space station so far, has been retrieving its unmanned capsules from the Pacific since 2010, though without Navy involvement.