Get to the choppa! Artemis 2 moon astronauts practice splashdown with U.S. Navy (images, video)

Just off the coast of San Diego, Artemis 2 astronauts, NASA personnel and the U.S. Navy practiced splashdown operations this month for the eventual end of the agency's forthcoming crewed moon mission, slated to lift off in September 2025.

In a callback to the Apollo moon missions of the 1960s and 1970s, the multi-day Underway Recovery Test 11 saw helicopters, rescue divers, a huge military ship and hundreds of people unite to practice getting the astronauts safely out of the water.

It's the first time the four astronauts of Artemis 2 put themselves at sea to learn how to safely exit their Orion spacecraft in choppy ocean waters, though all teams have gone through different types of recovery exercises before URT-11.

Related: Astronauts won't walk on the moon until 2026 after NASA delays next 2 Artemis missions

U.S. Navy divers work with mockup of the Artemis 2 spacecraft (with balloons on top to right it in the water, if necessary) in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 25, 2024. The divers, who are assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU), are seen here inflating a "front porch" life raft used to retrieve the astronauts after their moon mission. Also visible in the picture is a helicopter. (Image credit: U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Connor Burns)

Artemis 2 aims to send four astronauts around the moon on the first crewed lunar expedition since Apollo 17's landing in 1972. 

The crew includes NASA commander Reid Wiseman, NASA pilot Victor Glover (who will become the first Black person to leave low Earth orbit, or LEO), NASA mission specialist Christina Koch (who will become the first woman to go beyond LEO) and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) mission specialist Jeremy Hansen (who will become the first non-American to fly to the Moon).

An MH-60S Sea Hawk lifts an air rescue swimmer and a mock astronaut into the helicopter on Feb. 23, 2024, during a Pacific Ocean exercise to simulate Artemis 2 recovery operations after the moon mission. The Sea Hawk is assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 23 with the U.S. Navy. (Image credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Olivia Rucker)

Members of the U.S. Navy Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 23 "Wildcards," with an MH-60S Sea Hawk, practice recovery procedures of a simulated Artemis 2 moon spacecraft in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 23, 2023. (Image credit: NASA/Kenny Allen)

The quartet practiced their recovery moves in the Pacific Ocean along with at least two other members of the astronaut corps: CSA astronaut Jenni Gibbons, who is Hansen's backup, and NASA astronaut candidate Chris Birch, according to NASA. (None of the group posted yet on social media about their sea activities.)

The Artemis 2 moon astronauts descend a deck in the USS San Diego during recovery exercises on Feb. 25, 2024. From the front: NASA commander Reid Wiseman, NASA pilot Victor Glover, NASA mission specialist Christina Koch and Canadian Space Agency mission specialist Jeremy Hansen. (Image credit: NASA/Isaac Watson)

The Artemis 2 moon astronauts pose in the well deck of the USS San Diego during recovery exercises on Feb. 25, 2024. From left: Canadian Space Agency mission specialist Jeremy Hansen, NASA mission specialist Christina Koch, NASA pilot Victor Glover and NASA commander Reid Wiseman. (Image credit: NASA/Isaac Watson)

Artemis 2 commander Reid Wiseman, a NASA astronaut and U.S. Navy captain, upon the USS San Diego during recovery exercises on Feb. 25, 2024. Behind him is a helicopter with the Navy's Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 23 "Wildcards." (Image credit: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service)

"We'll be out on a ship with the U.S. Navy, practicing in the Orion capsule as if the crew has just come back from around the moon," Gibbons told on Feb. 5 in an exclusive interview at CSA headquarters near Montreal, during an event highlighting Canadian contributions to Artemis 2.

"We work with the amazing recovery team, working on egress from the capsule with assistance ... and really letting that team work through all of the issues that they may encounter and how to do that as seamlessly as possible."

Related: Artemis 2 moon mission practice recovered crew from an Orion spacecraft at sea

NASA astronaut and U.S. Navy captain Victor Glover (in orange flight suit, center) being helped by recovery personnel during an Artemis 2 recovery exercise in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 25, 2024. (Image credit: NASA/Kenny Allen)

The astronauts of Artemis 2 (visible in orange flight suits, in the boat) sit with U.S. Navy personnel after leaving a mockup Orion spacecraft on Feb. 25, 2024. They are floating on an inflatable "front porch" that will be deployed in the Pacific Ocean after they return from the moon. The multi-day sea exercise saw NASA's Exploration Ground System's landing and recovery team work together with the Department of Defense. (Image credit: NASA/Jamie Peer)

While the actual Orion that will fly to the moon is not used at sea, practice took place with a mockup known as the Crew Module Test Article. The mockup "is the same size as Orion and has seats inside so the team can simulate astronauts being aboard," NASA officials wrote in a 2023 release.

NASA astronaut and U.S. Navy captain Victor Glover, the Artemis 2 pilot for the round-the-moon mission, in a vessel during simulated recovery operations on Feb. 25, 2024. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA astronaut Christina Koch surrounded by support personnel during simulated Artemis 2 recovery operations in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 25, 2024. (Image credit: NASA)

The multi-day recovery effort this month was supported both by NASA's Exploration Ground System's landing and recovery team and the Department of Defense, including the USS San Diego amphibious transport dock ship and the U.S. Navy's Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 23, also known as the "Wildcards."

The Wildcards use MH-60S helicopters and MQ-8B Fire Scout uncrewed aerial vehicles to work "in support of Navy objectives," the squadron's web page states, including applications like personnel recovery or special operations forces — both of which are relevant for Artemis 2 operations at sea.

Also in the group were divers from the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit, who are trained to "parachute from the air to reach distant targets or dive under the sea to disarm weapons," the Navy website states.

U.S. Navy sailors aboard a rigid hull inflatable boat during Artemis 2 recovery exercises on Feb. 25, 2024. Far in the background is the amphibious transport dock ship USS San Diego. (Image credit: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service)

A mockup Orion spacecraft for Artemis 2 floats in the Pacific Ocean with the USS San Diego visible in the background, on Feb. 23, 2024. (Image credit: NASA/Kenny Allen)

NASA's Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) "develops and operates the systems and facilities needed to process and launch rockets and spacecraft for NASA's Artemis missions," the agency's website states.

EGS, among other duties for Artemis 2, supported a simulated launch exercise conducted by the Artemis 2 astronauts in 2023. It saw the four astronauts go out to their launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida and ascend the mobile launch tower that will one day bring them on board the Space Launch System rocket.

A mockup Artemis 2 spacecraft is brought into the USS San Diego well deck in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 22, 2024. (Image credit: NASA/Kenny Allen)

A simulated Artemis 2 Orion spacecraft in the Pacific Ocean at sunrise on Feb. 23, 2024. Recovery operations for the moon mission were being practiced with NASA’s Exploration Ground System's landing and recovery team and the Department of Defense.  (Image credit: NASA/Kenny Allen)

Artemis 2 and Artemis 3 are the next two missions in line under the NASA-led Artemis program. Both of these missions were delayed in January due to numerous technical issues; Artemis 2 was pushed back nine months to September 2025 while Artemis 3 was delayed at least a year to 2026.

Canada is a participant in Artemis 2 as one of more than 30 countries who have signed up under the U.S.-led Artemis Accords. A subset of those countries contribute hardware for direct participation in moon missions — the Canadarm3 robotic arm (for NASA's future Gateway space station around the moon) is CSA's contribution, for instance, in exchange for Artemis seats in the future. Other Artemis-focused hardware is being provided by groups like the European Space Agency, the United Arab Emirates Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Most of the nations are part of the accords under its secondary objective, however, which is to establish peaceful space exploration norms. 

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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: