USS Anchorage completes NASA’s Orion capsule recovery test

Sailors attached to the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Anchorage (LPD 23) help NASA engineers guide back the Orion test article into the ship, Jan. 18. Photo: US Navy

US Navy’s San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Anchorage (LPD 23) successfully recovered NASA’s Orion capsule in the fourth test conducted ahead of the actual recovery mission in 2020.

The latest test was completed on January 23.

The underway recovery test-6 (URT-6) is part of a US government interagency effort to safely retrieve the Orion crew module, which is capable of carrying humans into deep space.

This marks the fourth completion of a URT aboard Anchorage. NASA engineers worked alongside sailors from the Anchorage, the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS New Orleans (LPD 18), Special Boat Team 12, and navy divers from Explosive Ordinance Disposal Mobile Unit 3 to test recovery operations of the Orion test article. Tests were conducted in varying sea states, during the day and at night.

“Our crew has actually been training for several months closely with NASA on everything from planning conferences to onsite training to be ready for the mission,” said Capt. Dennis Jacko, Anchorage commanding officer. “I think the ship and the crew are doing a great job for a historic tasking we have added to a very busy schedule as we prepare for deployment. Everybody stepped up and provided the best support with our NASA partners for a very successful test.”

URT-6 consisted of releasing the test capsule from the well deck, then carefully maneuvering the ship alongside the capsule at slow speed. Once the test article was far enough from the ship, the lines attaching the capsule to the ship were released. Then, divers attached a stabilization ring designed by NASA that would help in sustaining the astronauts in the capsule for up to three days. Divers then removed the collar, attached lines from the small boats to steady and guide the capsule toward Anchorage, where Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIB) would then assist in attaching lines from a NASA-designed winch which then hauled the capsule into the well deck.

The whole recovery is a high risk evolution, especially when the capsule is being towed closely behind the ship, but NASA took our inputs and modified the equipment for this URT mission,” said Chief Petty Officer Beau Lontine, a Navy diver assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 3. “There are so many things that could go wrong if just one person isn’t paying attention. We’ve conducted training with the hardware and rigging to allow for a safe recovery of the capsule. It might seem like a basic recovery, but it is far from a simple evolution.”

The tests allowed NASA and the Navy to continue to demonstrate and evaluate the recovery processes, procedures, hardware and personnel in real, open-ocean environment before conducting actual recovery operations.

URTs have been conducted since 2014 and will continue to be until NASA engineers believe the recovery process is without error. The next URT, URT-7, is scheduled to be on the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Somerset (LPD 25) in October 2018 when NASA will conduct the validation and verification of the recovery hardware.

According to NASA’s Recovery Director Melissa Jones, future tests will ensure NASA and the Navy arrive at a safe and more efficient way to recover the capsule for an early 2020’s mission involving a flying crew.

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