NASA and the U.S. Air Force recently tested astronaut survival systems for the first time since the space shuttles stopped flying in 2011.
Those tests were part of the agency's preparations for the first crewed flights of its Orion module, which is designed to carry astronauts out of our immediate neighborhood and toward more exotic destinations like the moon and Mars.
The scenarios focused on systems that would protect astronauts landing in open water under harsh weather conditions. (As usual for spaceflight systems, the agency wants to make sure everything works safely in the most extreme conditions that might be experienced.)
During the tests, NASA and the Air Force studied both the rafting equipment that lets crewmembers leave the capsule and the beacon systems that help rescue personnel track down the astronauts. The latter are leftover from the space shuttles' systems and haven't been checked since the vehicles stopped flying in 2011.
Crew-safety measures are at the top of everyone's mind after the Oct. 11 Soyuz launch failure that sent two astronauts plummeting back to Earth just a few minutes after their rocket blasted off. The abort system that carried those astronauts away from the troubled rocket hadn't been used in 35 years.
The Orion capsule is designed to fly on the Space Launch System, a powerful rocket that NASA has yet to complete. Crewed flights are scheduled to begin in the early 2020s, leaving the agency plenty of time to ensure all the safety systems can hold up under the harshest possible conditions.