Navy, NASA Complete Underway Recovery Test

On Jan. 23, the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Anchorage (LPD 23) successfully completed recovery operations of NASA's Orion test capsule in what is referred to as the Underway Recovery Test (URT) 6. Part of a U.S. 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.

Along with the Sailors from Anchorage and NASA engineers, personnel from the same class ship USS New Orleans (LPD 18), Special Boat Team 12 and Navy divers from Explosive Ordinance Disposal Mobile Unit 3 joined forces to practice recovery operations of the Orion test capsule during tests conducted day and night and in varying sea states.

"Our crew trained closely with NASA for several months to be ready for this mission," said Capt. Dennis Jacko, Anchorage commanding officer. "I think the ship did an outstanding job supporting historic tasking in addition to the demands required to prepare for deployment. The successful test is evidence that everyone – including our NASA partners - delivered."

Designed to launch and recover amphibious craft during normal operations, the ship's well deck offers a model set-up for this unique NASA mission by not only carrying and storing multiple small boats to aid in the recovery process of the capsule, but more importantly, by partially submersing the aft part of the ship, the test capsule was able to be recovered in ideal conditions for the task. And should the returning astronauts need it, the ship's advanced medical facility has the equipment and personnel on stand by for treatment.

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 capsule was far enough from the ship, the lines attaching the capsule to the ship were released. Divers then attached a NASA stabilization ring designed to help in sustaining the capsule, and therefore the astronauts, for up to three days. ​​


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Retrieval operations required the divers to first remove that collar, attach lines from the small boats to steady and guide the capsule toward Anchorage, and then allow Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIB) to assist NASA in attaching lines to a winch of their design which finally hauled the capsule into the well deck.

The recovery in its entirety was considered a high-risk evolution, but special attention was paid to the capsule when it was towed closely behind the ship. “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 can go wrong if just one person isn't paying attention, so we conducted training with both the hardware and rigging to allow for a safe recovery of the capsule. To the casual observer, it might seem like a basic recovery, but it was far from a simple evolution."

The test recoveries allow the NASA-Navy partnership to evaluate recovery processes and procedures, while validating hardware sustaining open-ocean conditions prior to conducting recovery operations outside of controlled environments, where risk increases greatly for personnel involved.

Aboard Anchorage to observe his first URT was NASA Astronaut, retired Navy Capt. Stephen Bowen. "I'm very pleased with what I saw," said Bowen. "The reason you do this is to better understand. You realize you don't have all the answers right now. There will be changes made; things are going to evolve, and they should get better over time."

Since 2014, URTs have been conducted by NASA engineers with the intention to continue until the recovery process is believed to be without error. URT-7 is scheduled for October 2018 aboard USS Somerset (LPD 25) where specific attention will be paid to the validation and verification of the recovery hardware. Efforts of the URT program are aimed toward developing a safer, more efficient way of recovering the capsule scheduled for an early 2020 mission involving a flying crew, said NASA’s Recovery Director Melissa Jones.

"Testing went very well. We've shaved 15 minutes off a timeline with one run, which is important when recovering a crew in order to get them out as quickly as possible."

The Orion spacecraft is designed to meet the evolving needs of our nation's deep-space exploration program for decades to come and will not only carry the crew to space, but provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.

Anchorage is homeported in San Diego and is part of U.S. 3rd Fleet. Third Fleet leads naval forces in the Pacific and provides realistic, relevant training necessary for an effective global Navy.Surface Warfare Magazine

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