It looks like the grainy splashdowns in the Pacific from the Apollo missions will be replaced soon. The Navy has conducted drills in the Pacific Ocean to retrieve the Orion capsule.

During the first part of August, the U.S. Navy and NASA practiced the recovery a few hundred miles off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. This is the second round of practice retrievals, gearing up for an actual recovery on December 4 of this year. The capsule will hit an altitude of 3,600 miles, and then splashdown in the same location the Navy is conducting drills.

This splashdown, coupled with an orbit of the moon will be unmanned, but it is all part of a larger mission to put man back into space. First stop will be the moon, and eventually manned missions to Mars.

Instead of the Apollo and Gemini method of using helicopters to grab the capsule, the Orion capsule gets the full valet treatment. It will be towed up a ramp into the stern of a U.S. Naval vessel.

During the drills, the USS Anchorage practiced the towing maneuver six times, grabbing the 20,000 pound capsule out of the ocean. Since the drills have begun, several additions have been added to both the Orion capsule and ship towing it. Airbags have been added to Orion to deal with heavy seas. Rubber bumpers have been installed in the ship’s deck to cushion the retrieval.

The entire operation is more complex than the Apollo missions. Navy divers will be deployed to capture the retrieval and grab any debris left behind. Six smaller ships will help stabilize the capsule, and three helicopters will provide guidance to the retrieval ship.

With the success of the drills, the Navy and NASA can now look forward to a real-world test in December. Soon, they will be working to grab returning astronauts out of the Pacific.


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