NASA and the U.S. Navy say they've performed a successful practice recovery of the Orion capsule intended to take humans back to the surface of the moon, on asteroid missions and even some day to Mars.
The recovery exercise in the Pacific Ocean in coastal waters off California saw Navy dive teams retrieve a test Orion capsule and bring it aboard the Navy's USS Anchorage recovery vessel using a cradle and winch system.
It was the last chance to practice the recovery procedure that will take place when Orion is launched for real in December to an altitude around 3,600 miles, followed by an ocean splashdown.
That launch will be without a crew in the capsule, as will an intended 2017 mission that will have Orion orbit the moon and then return.
"Completing recovery simulations in a real, ocean environment before [December] is incredibly helpful," said Larry Price, Lockheed Martin Deputy Program Manager for the Orion program.
The practice exercise tested methods for handling the Orion module and putting the pieces recovery equipment through their paces, he said.
In the December launch, Orion will go past low Earth orbit to a distance 15 times farther than the orbit of the International Space Station, then head back to Earth at around 20,000 miles per hour for a Pacific Ocean splashdown.
During its reentry the capsule will experience temperatures as high as 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, protected by its heat shield while being slowed by thrusters until it can deploy parachutes.
Ocean splashdowns were the chosen method of landing for Gemini and Apollo spacecraft in the 1960s and 1970s, but NASA hasn't performed an at-sea recovery since 1975.
Unlike the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft that were lifted onto recovery ships by helicopter, Orion will be hauled up a sloping ramp onto the recovery system's stern.
That procedure was part of the recent practice effort by the crew of the USS Anchorage, hauling the 20,000-pound mockup practice Orion up its ramp six times.
"We learned a lot about our hardware, gathered good data, and the test objectives were achieved," said Mike Generale, NASA recovery operations manager. "We were able to put Orion out to sea and safely bring it back multiple times. We are ready to move on to the next step of our testing with a full dress rehearsal landing simulation on the next test."
The practice session followed an earlier one conducted in February.