Navy Practices Retrieving Orion Spacecraft

NASA's Orion spacecraft test vehicle sits in the well deck of the USS Anchorage at the Port of Los Angeles. (AP Photo)

LOS ANGELES  — The U.S. Navy and NASA wrapped up the second round of practice recoveries of the Orion spacecraft, which is designed to bring humans to the moon, asteroids and, eventually, to Mars.

The tests took place from Aug. 1 to Aug. 4 a few hundred miles off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, where the Orion will splash down Dec. 4 after reaching an altitude of 3,600 miles.

The December mission will be crew-less, as will a scheduled 2017 orbit around the moon. But like the practice recoveries this week, it's all part of a long-term effort to bring humans further into space than they've ever traveled before.

"We're building a crewed vehicle to go to other planets," said Larry Price, Lockheed Martin's deputy program manager for the Orion. Lockheed Martin designed and built the Orion for NASA. "(The Orion) is the complex vehicle that will be able to return them safely," Price said.

The Orion is akin to an astronaut taxi, albeit a highly advanced one. Traveling to and from earth, the Orion will face up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,204 degrees Celsius) heat and move at speeds of up to 20,000 mph.

Parachutes, a protective heat shield and thrusters will slow down the Orion and help it land accurately in the sea, NASA Orion program manager Mark Geyer said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when plopping into the sea was the landing method of choice for the Apollo and Gemini spacecraft, the Navy used helicopters to locate and lift up newly arrived astronauts.

But in this next chapter of sea recoveries, which haven't been carried out since 1975, the spacecraft is towed up a ramp into the stern of a naval vessel.

Practicing that recovery was the focus of the USS Anchorage's crew, which repeated picking up a mock-up version of the 20,000-pound capsule six times, NASA spokeswoman Brandi Dean said.

To overcome the turbulent waters, which forced officials to halt a recovery practice in February, an air-bag system was added to a cradle around the capsule, and rubber bumpers were installed in the ship's deck for cushioning.

Hauling in the Orion involves more than just attaching cords. About 17 Navy scuba divers will capture images of the spacecraft and collect parts of the capsule that float nearby. Crews on six smaller ships will help stabilize the Orion, and three helicopters will provide guidance from a birds-eye view.

The USS Anchorage is now berthed at the Port of Los Angeles, where visitors to this weekend's Navy Days can view the Orion prototype and tour the vessel.

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