NASA's Deep-Space Spacecraft Passes Water Recovery Test (Video)

Tow Lines Attached to Orion Test Spacecraft
Divers attach tow lines to an Orion test spacecraft during a stationary recovery test at Norfolk Naval Base in August 2013. (Image credit: NASA/Dave Bowman)

A new test of NASA's future deep-space capsule for crews is reigniting the tradition of recovering NASA spacecraft from the sea.

In the still waters near a pier in Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, a prototype Orion spacecraft was successfully brought on board a navy ship for the first time.

“It was nice to see how the ballet of it all performed,” said Lou Garcia, NASA recovery director, in a statement. [Photos: Orion Space Capsule's Parachute Test]

Navy divers put tow lines on the test capsule and brought Orion to an open space (known as a well deck) below the main deck of the U.S.S. Arlington. Once the spacecraft was safely inside, water inside the well deck was drained until Orion was flat on the surface.

It's been nearly 40 years since the last Apollo spacecraft — one that formed part of the Apollo-Soyuz mission — splashed down in the Pacific in 1975. After a generation of landing space shuttles on land, NASA chose to shift back to water-based landings for Orion as it eyes missions beyond Earth orbit.

First Orion test flight in September 2014

This particular test took two years to accomplish as NASA and the Navy worked together on the recovery procedures. The landings will be out in the choppy ocean, but they chose as a first step to do a test within a controlled environment – the waters next to a pier.

An Orion test spacecraft is silhouetted on the carrier deck after recovery test. (Image credit: NASA/Dave Bowman)

"This allows us to practice our procedures in a benign environment with no ship movement and minimum wave action," Jim Hamblin, a landing and recovery element operations manager with NASA's ground systems development and operations program, said in a statement.

The next step is to do the procedures on the open water, which will happen around January 2014. Orion's first test flight, known as Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1, is scheduled for September 2014.

EFT-1 will bring an uncrewed spacecraft 3,600 miles (nearly 6,000 kilometers) above Earth — about 15 times higher than the orbit of the International Space Station. Orion will then do a high-speed entry, traveling up to 20,000 miles an hour (32,000 kilometers an hour) before splashing down into the Pacific Ocean.

Engineers plan to gather information on Orion's flight systems, heat shield and other systems to refine the spacecraft's design before humans climb onboard later in the decade.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: