USS Anchorage brings Orion spacecraft back to San Diego
December 9, 2014
NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. — NASA’s Orion spacecraft was unloaded from the USS Anchorage here Monday night to prepare for its journey back to Kennedy Space Center.
After circling the Earth twice at 20,000 miles per hour and shielding its critical systems from temperatures reaching 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, Orion splashed safely into the Pacific Ocean on Friday. The cone-shaped craft is designed for deep-space missions and will eventually take astronauts to Mars. It launched on its first test flight Friday morning from Florida, traveling higher into space than any craft built for humans in more than 40 years, and landed about a mile from its predicted landing spot four and a half hours later. Orion orbited at 3,600 miles above the Earth; the International Space Station orbits some 260 miles above the planet.
Petty Officer 1st Class Mathew DeMyers, team leader for the recovery divers who helped get Orion into the Anchorage’s well deck, said his team had trained in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston to prepare.
The test marked the Navy’s return to manned space flight after 40 years, said Capt. Mike McKenna, commanding officer of the Anchorage.
“We’re back,” he said.
NASA recovery director Jeremy Graeber said Orion’s first underway recovery test was in February, with the USS San Diego. The craft has had two more recovery tests since, both with the Anchorage.
Friday was the first flight test, and Graeber said the recovery was “flawless.”
It took several hours for divers to affix a “horse collar” to Orion and use a winch to pull it out, DeMyers and McKenna said.
“We wanted to be patient, take our time,” Graeber said. “We didn’t rush.”
Orion will return to Florida, where Lockheed Martin will assess its performance and do more design and development work before the next test flight, planned for 2018, said Shawn Quinn, exploration systems manager for the ground systems development and operations program.
By the next test, Orion will be launched by NASA’s Space Launch System, which Quinn described as the world’s largest rocket, and which will eventually take people into deep space. NASA defines deep space a few ways, but for manned spacecraft, it’s generally considered 10,000 miles or more from Earth.
The first manned flight is scheduled for 2021, he said.
NASA is working with the Navy on Orion because unlike space shuttles, this deep-space craft is designed for water landing and recovery. Graeber said he was very pleased with how well the teams worked together, calling the group “the best of the best.”
McKenna said there were about 400 sailors on the deck of the landing dock ship to watch Orion re-enter the atmosphere, with hoots and hollers when it splashed down.
“The crew was really excited,” he said.