U.S. Navy personnel are already preparing for that day when a human astronaut crew returns from a mission to Mars or the asteroid belt. The Navy and NASA completed on Thursday several days of training exercises in which they practiced a ship-based retrieval of an Orion space capsule from the sea.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, astronauts returning from the Moon and low-Earth orbit would fall through the atmosphere in the capsule portions of their spacecraft and splash down into ocean water, where a Navy ship would be at hand to pick them up. No such splashdowns have taken place in the last 40 years, there having been no lunar missions since 1972 and NASA having employed the space shuttle for manned missions from 1982 until the shuttle’s cancellation in 2011.
These days, when astronauts go into space, they hitch rides aboard Russia’s Soyuz space shuttles. And the Soyuz don’t do splashdowns, either. They parachute down into the Kazakhstan desert for retrieval by truck.
A new generation of splashdowns may not be too far away, however. NASA has dusted off the model for the Orion space capsule, which ferried astronauts to the Moon and back, and is modifying it for ventures far beyond lunar orbit. This updated Orion is a work in progress, but NASA can say for certain that it will be larger and much heavier than the original.
This week’s Navy-NASA took place in the Elizabeth River, off the shores of Norfolk, Virginia. Diving crews practiced embarking from the deck of the USS Arlington and riding in a small boat to a mockup Orion space capsule floating in the water. Upon reaching it, they attached cords to its hull and towed it back to the Arlington.
This presents a slight departure from the Apollo-era missions, in which the ship’s crew would lift the astronauts into a helicopter and fly them back to the ship, where they could step out of the capsule. They figured that the towing approach would be easier on the crew than an airlift would be. That’s an important consideration since even a short stay in space tends to weaken the human body, and a voyage to Mars or the asteroids would certainly not be short.
The Navy and NASA will have plenty of time to keep practicing, at any rate. NASA estimates that a new Orion mission won’t be until 2021, at the earliest.