As some of you may know, Marco Lozano and I were part of the Orion recovery team supporting the recovery operations onboard the USS Anchorage during the Exploration Flight Test – 1 (EFT-1). The recovery operations were a KSC lead effort and Marco and I were farmed out to provide assistance. I was tasked with managing and overseeing all imagery for recovery ops, and Marco was the imagery data manager. Hopefully, some of you got to see some of the footage that was acquired during the mission. There was tons of imagery from airborne assets such as helicopters, small inflatable and rigid hull boats, and from the mother ship (USS Anchorage), an amphibious transport ship about 730’ long. A real monster of a ship and very, very impressive, probably the size of the Disney Magic but of course not as luxurious.
Here’s some quick background on the relationship between NASA and the Department of Defense (DoD) for the EFT-1 recovery effort. NASA KSC is tasked with all aspects of Orion recovery and joined forces with the Navy to utilize a ship capable of safely recovering the Orion capsule. So, KSC developed a team and the necessary hardware to capture, tow, and secure Orion onboard the Anchorage. The Navy provided the ship, sailors and divers to do the actual at-sea recovery, towing and securing of Orion onboard the ship. NASA folks provided support hardware, program management, training and oversight. This was truly an integrated team of NASA (about 40 or so actively working, and another 20 providing technical support) and the Navy.
Prior to the mission we conducted multiple training exercises with the Navy. We started at Naval Base Norfolk, Virginia, with a pier side demonstration. We basically stayed tied to the dock, deploy the capsule in the harbor and did our very first water recovery ops. From there, we supported what are termed as Underway Recovery Tests (URT’s). Each of these tests was designed to progressively improve processes, train the team, and gain an understanding of the dynamics of real life at-sea conditions. We conducted four URTs all with ships based in San Diego. So, there was lots of travel involved and many nights spent onboard the ships sleeping in what I like to refer to as a “sardine can.”
Working with the Navy personnel, both the officers and enlisted men, was truly a highlight of the task. I have to say after spending quite a bit of time at Naval Base San Diego (NBSD) and onboard the USS Anchorage, I have a new appreciation for both the life-style and sense of pride of our military personnel. Each morning at 8AM, “morning colors” are sounded as the flag is raised. No matter where you were, or what you were doing, you turned, stood at attention, and faced the flag as it’s raised. As you walk about the base and ship everyone is treated with respect and folks are very friendly and open. During my timeframe spent onboard, I met sailors and officers from all over the country. As you can imagine, after being at the base and onboard the ship multiple times you got to see some of the same faces. We’d strike up conversations and talk about general every day stuff, like how did you end up on this ship or where do you call home. I was astonished at how the sailors working with us were proud to be supporting NASA. This extended to the officers also. Every one of them continued to make statements such as, “this is so cool” or “I can’t believe I’m actually doing this”. Even though their interest was keen, most of them lacked knowledge on what we were really doing other than recovering a NASA “capsule” from the ocean. To help build their NASA Orion knowledge base, when the opportunity presented itself, I’d talk with small groups of the younger sailors and explain our primary mission and give them the big picture. This always spurred good conversation and information exchange, and of course statements like “oh yeah, I saw the movie Apollo 13”. But, helping these sailors gain a better understanding of the NASA Orion program always seemed to heighten their desire for more knowledge of Orion and NASA in general. Throughout my onboard support, I was approached by some of these same sailors looking for explanations about the recovery task, and they wanted to know what the next thing was after NASA Orion’s EFT-1.
A little bit about life onboard. The USS Anchorage is an LPD (Landing Platform Dock, or Landing Transport Dock) with seven levels and is primarily a troop transport carrying marines and gear to support our allies and welfare of the US. Getting around the ship is a constant up and down stair cases (if they have an elevator I certainly couldn’t find it!). And, of course, the ship is made of steel and there are no forgiving surfaces. I hit my head twice ascending stairways (more like ladders than usual stairs). But, after hitting my head a couple of times I finally wised up and was more cautious as a moved about. Our work area was down in what is referred to as the ships “well”, which also includes an area that is flooded with an access door (stern gate) allowing Orion to be floated onboard. Once items such as Orion are floated onboard the well is drained. When the ballasting is occurring you better have ear-plugs, as this process creates a loud screeching noise (unbearable). Sleeping quarters and accommodations were pretty good, all things considered. All of the NASA team had shared quarters, some with four folks to a room, others more of a dormitory style arrangement. These quarters were usually up on levels 2, 3 and 4. For bedding you had a mattress, pillow, sheets and one very, very rough wool blanket. So, everyone bought along either a sleeping bag or their own blanket. All of the rooms had bunk style beds, and for access to the top bunk you had to hoist yourself up (there was no ladder). For my first couple of trips and stays onboard I choose the upper bunk. I didn’t experience too much of a problem getting in and out, except in the middle of the night for a trip to the bathroom. So, again I figure this out and started to get onboard early (before other NASA guys) and choose a lower bunk (or sardine can). That really had advantages as you could just roll out of bed onto the floor and you’re ready to go. Sleeping onboard was pretty comfortable most nights, with an occasional large swell moving you around a bit. Of course if you happen to bunk with someone who snores, it’s a bit of a problem (which for the mission I did…I think I slept about 2 hours a night, on average, during that entire week). But at night it’s very, very quiet onboard. The bunks were certainly not spacious but large enough. However, you did have to be cautious and not sit up in bed quickly or fully extend to a sitting position (just not enough room). Again, after whacking your head a couple of times, you figure this one out too. The Navy has its protocol and we all adapted pretty well. You kind of get used to the regimentation. Lights out at 10PM, Lord’s Prayer and a brief statement from the captain. Then at 5AM everyone gets a wakeup call via the PA system. This was a very high pitched whistle with a screeching sound (can you image that?). If you didn’t have to get up for work assignments you could sleep in a bit longer.
Just after sunset, all lights on the exterior of the ship or those that can be seen from outside are turned off (referred to as “stealth mode”). It becomes eerily dark. As you walk about the passage ways on the port and starboard interior sides of the ship there is a red illuminating light on the port side and a green light on the starboard to help guide your way. Once on the outside deck areas it’s completely pitch dark with the only light sources being the illumination from the moon and stars. We were allowed access on pretty much any deck with the exception of the “bridge” (ships control area).
Eating accommodations were pretty good. The cafeteria had very strict hours as they are manned by the sailors onboard who rotate through stations and still have to do their “day jobs”. Breakfast was 5-7AM, lunch 11AM-1PM and dinner from 4-6PM. There were two separate cafeterias and dining rooms. All of the NASA folks ate with the officers in what was called the “ward room”. This area had tables and chairs for seating about 60 or so, therefore, you got your food, ate and moved out. I never felt rushed as you could always tell when folks needed a seat so of course when finished eating you relinquished your seat. I’d have to say that the food was pretty good. On a scale of 1-10 I’d put it at about an 8 or so. Much better than I expected and always lots of food. There was always dessert after dinner; sometimes they’d serve ice cream. We were treated exceptionally well at all times. The evening after the Orion recovery we got very special treatment and for dinner we had steak and lobster (yep, I said “Steak and Lobster”).
There were many highlights during my numerous URTs (sea trials) so here’s a few that really stood out.
On our very first trip out of San Diego, we were off-shore about 50 miles in the lee of San Clemente Island (it afforded us protected water – operating between the island and the mainland). Our task was to deploy Orion from the ship (for test we used the BTA – Boilerplate Test Article) and practice recovery ops. These ops required flooding the well deck and towing the BTA to the open Ocean as a first step. Well, this turned out to be quite the challenge. As the stern gate (ships aft access door) was open and the BTA was being extracted from the ship the sea conditions were much more severe than expected. The tow line between the BTA and the small boats broke and the capsule became out of control inside the ship’s well area. There were sailors inside the ship above the well deck on the cat-walks (port and starboard) with tending lines (about 15 sailors on each side). But, it soon became evident that the mass of the BTA (about 20K lbs.) along with Mother Nature (sea environment) where far superior than the sailors brut strength. The BTA was at the mercy of Mother Nature as it was trapped inside the well free floating. It banged off the walls, and as it came forward, a group of us were on a finger pier (work area about 15’ above and just forward of the open well) started to scramble, not knowing what to expect. I’d have to say we got a little wet (a real lesson learned…). The draining (de-ballast) of the well was started and the BTA was lowered to the ship’s deck. Of course this wasn’t the plan, as we hoped to put it back onto its handling fixture. After about 4 or 5 hours of scratching our heads we came up with a plan to place the BTA back in the cradle, which we successfully accomplished. So, from this experience we gained lots and lots of knowledge on how to work in the “real world” environment of at-sea, open water conditions. This experience was a true lesson learned and certainly was a key driver for the team to move forward with developing new and enhanced processes and training for the recovery. And this just strengthens the reasons that you test and demonstrate to ensure you have a solid plan to accomplish the goals and objectives.
On another of our test trials, our ship upon completion of the Orion activities had to report to Long Beach, CA to be part of “Navy Day’s”. This is an annual event hosted by city of Long Beach Port Authority and the Navy. So, we secured our gear, sailed north, and into the port of LB. As we were transiting to our destination, all of the ship’s sailors and marines dressed in the whites and blues (marines) align themselves along the exterior open decks in formation. This was truly an awesome sight to behold, especially as we came closer to pier-side you could see a very large crowd waving a cheering. The NASA team was asked to stay inside and observe. We were able to find some pretty good viewing spots while still staying tucked away out of sight of the public. We didn’t stick around for the celebration as we had meetings to support and post-test debriefings to prepare. However, KSC PAO and some of the technicians stayed onboard and supported the activities including public viewing of the BTA and other NASA recovery hardware.
During another of our at-sea trials out of San Diego, the USS Anchorage was scheduled to conduct an at- sea fueling demonstration. During this exercise, I think we were somewhere between 50 and 75 miles off the California coast. A fueling ship (not a flat tanker) came along side as we on-loaded fuel. I don’t recall how much fuel we took on, but the operations took about 4 hours. It was pretty interesting seeing the ship to ship maneuvers at-sea as well as observing the operations.
Another event that was pretty cool was target practice (live rounds). During this exercise, the ship’s 50 caliber deck mounted guns were fired at deployed targets at ranges up to a mile, and closer. We found a good spot to watch this event. You could see the tracers from the firing as they were projecting towards the targets. The sounds of the rapid fire big guns were incredible (you had to wear hearing protection). As we were watching, we’re thinking “man, these guys are lousy shots”. But, as we came alongside of the targets you could see multiple holes. So, it was obviously our viewing angle that lead us to believe they were missing the targets when, in actuality, these guys were really hitting the targets with almost every shot.
Personal account written by Imagery Integration Lead Dan Smith.