The Apollo 11 crew knew it: Some of the biggest dangers of space exploration are right here on Earth.
When they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969, the moonfaring astronauts donned “Biological Isolation Garments” and were quarantined 21 days to ensure they weren’t infected with any unknown “moon germs.”
The lessons they learned will be invaluable in 2023, when the time comes to recover the four-astronaut crew of NASA's Artemis 2 mission. The first crewed flight of the Orion spacecraft will make a flyby of the moon.
“There’s a lot of attention paid to the hazards and dangers of different phases of the Orion mission, like the launch and reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, as well as space being a hostile, unforgiving environment,” said Raytheon Technologies’ Randal Lindner, Operations Contract program manager at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, Texas. “But the landing and recovery also has perils, and it is human nature to think that they’re back on Earth, so they’re safe and sound. But you’ve got wave action, an open hatch and strapped-in astronauts whose muscles have atrophied after 10 days in space.”
For the past five years, the Raytheon Technologies team at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory has been working on prototype landing and recovery ground support equipment, testing procedures and training for those who will safely recover both the astronauts and the Orion spacecraft at sea.
The Orion will be secured and towed to a waiting ship, rather than hoisting it up by cables and flying it by helicopter like the old Apollo capsule. A winch will pull it through an open stern gate into the well deck, where it will be secured in a cradle. That's because Orion's crew capsule is about 50 percent bigger and twice the weight of Apollo’s.
“During crewed missions, we can recover the astronauts either in the open water or in the ship’s well deck. It really depends on sea conditions,” said Lisa Lundquist, Raytheon Technologies' project manager for Orion's landing and recovery. “We’ve help develop equipment and procedures for both possibilities, and we’ve practiced them in the NBL and out at sea so we're ready for any contingency.”
Landing and recovery prep is following a “crawl, walk, run” strategy. The crawl stage is being conducted at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which is operated by Raytheon Technologies. It's the largest indoor pool in the U.S.; the diving tank, where astronauts practice space walks, is 202 feet long, 102 feet wide and 40 feet deep. It contains 6.2 million gallons of water.
“The pool is a very controlled and safe environment where astronauts and the recovery team can practice,” Lundquist said.
Tests allow NASA and Raytheon Technologies to tweak both equipment and recovery operations. NASA conducted the unmanned Exploration Flight Test-1, or EFT-1, on Dec. 5, 2014, to evaluate Orion’s avionics, heat shielding, parachutes, and recovery procedures. Raytheon Technologies learned some lessons from that "run" phase test, which has led to prototype design improvements.
“It’s an iterative process — design, test, operate, evaluate and repeat,” Lundquist said. “We design a little, train a little, update the design and train some more again.”
This process has led to several prototype recovery devices, including a horse collar, pony collar, stabilization collar, and the “front porch,” which Raytheon Technologies kits for rapid deployment from aircraft.
During open water extraction, divers will attach an inflatable stabilization collar around Orion at the water line, which will serve as a work area for divers. The divers will also attach an inflatable life raft known as the front porch. Support staff can use it for medical treatment as well as a life raft for the astronauts.
Divers also will attach another collar, called a pony collar, around Orion a few feet above the water line. They will attach tending lines to the collar during recovery, and it will serve as the primary method for towing the Orion Crew Module into the well deck of the ship.
“One of the contingencies that we really need to be prepared for is if the capsule lands upside down,” Lundquist said. “Ideally, it will land upright with the heat shield in the water. But there's almost a 50-50 chance it won't.”
The Crew Module Uprighting System will deploy five orange airbags upon splashdown, and if Orion does take a nose dive or falls on its side, that system will flip the capsule right side up.
“After a few minutes upside down, the astronauts will experience distress, which makes CMUS an important safety feature,” Lundquist said.
The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory Operations Contract team is continuously tweaking its prototype recovery equipment and procedures, and trains new Detachment 3 team members as they rotate in.
“All of the testing, engineering and small high-fidelity changes,” Lindner said, “will pay off when Orion begins its missions to the Moon and beyond,” Lindner said. “And our team will feel that satisfaction when the crew is safely aboard the ship and the Orion capsule is in its cradle.”