Navy Practices Retrieving Orion Spacecraft Off Southern Californ - MyFoxAustin.com | KTBC Fox 7 | News, Weather, Sports

Navy Practices Retrieving Orion Spacecraft Off Southern California Coast

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(FOX 11 / AP) 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 by NASA 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.

From Bob DeCastro:

Two US Navy ships are docked at piers 91 and 92, and will be open to the public for tours for Navy Days at the Port of Los Angeles.

Onboard the USS Anchorage (LPD-23), the tour will include a look at NASA's Orion spacecraft. The unmanned capsule is scheduled to launch in December for its first mission. Orion will travel 3,600 miles above the Earth, but eventually engineers hope the capsule will take astronauts to the moon and to Mars.

The US Navy is playing a big role in the recovery mission because the capsule will parachute into the Pacific ocean. Over the weekend, the crew of the USS Anchorage practiced the recovery phase off the coast of Southern California.

Orion will descend at a speed of 20,000 mph. After splashdown, the Navy's job is to pick it up. Plan A is to send out small boats. Crews will cradle the capsule in airbag bumpers, and then tow it into the ship. Plan B is to use the ship's cranes to lift the spacecraft out of the water.

A recovery at sea has not been attempted since 1975. The public tours over the weekend in San Pedro are sold out.

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