The day of the launch and recovery started off extra early. We met at 4:30 AM PST to get a briefing of the launch status and prepare for our recovery operations. However, most of the team was already awake and monitoring as the launch occurred at about 7:05AM EST (4:05AM PST). Just like everyone else working the mission, we were truly relieved once launch, separation events and on-orbit flight was achieved. As you recall, just the day before we had gone through the exercise of waking extra early only to be disappointed when the launch was scrubbed.
For the onboard team, it was really exciting to get on with our part and preparing the ship and support systems for recovery. As I stated earlier, we had been preparing for this activity for over two years with at-sea tests and demonstrations. So, we were really ready to go and biting at the bit.
As the various teams prepared for our ops, you could tell everyone was well trained and moved along expeditiously for the main event. Our imagery team had already mounted our fixed camera assets and our two guys who supported open water imagery tasks got their equipment and boarded the 11 meter Rigid-hull Inflatable Boat (RIB). By the way, getting into the RIB is a daunting task as these small boats come alongside the USS Anchorage at the port-side door. The guys (and gals) have to climb down a rope ladder onto a bobbing, moving boats all while both vessels are moving at about five to six knots.
We had constructed a timeline that outlined every move our team made to choreograph each sequential event necessary to ensure a timely and safe recovery. There were restrictions on how close we could be when Orion splashed down, as well as a keep out zone until the JSC Mission Control Center (MCC) guys could power down and safe the vehicle. As all of these processes were evolving, folks onboard the ship lead by the NASA Recovery Director (NRD) was coordinating with ships command as well as the JSC MCC. On cue, when Orion was in the re-entry phase, two helicopters were deployed from the ship, and the small boats began to depart for anticipated recovery zones. The helos and small boat teams waited at safe distances as Orion re-entered the atmosphere. Of course, there was a choreographed script that was syncing up these events. In addition to the photographers onboard the small boats, there were NASA and Navy photographers positioned onboard the helo’s to capture imagery of key events, such as, the Orion and Forward Bay Recovery entry profile under chutes, vehicle re-entry dynamics as well as splashdown. Another critical task of the helos was to “spot” the hardware in the water and mark it with “smoke” (this also created a dye in the water) to assist the small boat team with recovery. As this was occurring, the small boat team of about six boats total are closing in on Orion and the FBC.
On cue from the MCC, the “go” was given for the dive team boat to approach Orion. This operation used a “sniffer” device operated by a diver while still in the small boat to determine if any harmful gases were being omitted from Orion. While all of this occurred, two of the small boats were heading to the FBC to perform recovery ops. However, by the time they arrived at the FBC, it had sunk out of sight. Unfortunately, we never saw the FBC again. Once the “all clear” was sounded at the Orion recovery site, the divers started to prep Orion for towing back to the Anchorage. Actually, the Anchorage maneuvered toward the recovery site. During re-entry, the Anchorage was stationed about 3 miles from the splashdown site and began closing in to approach Orion as small boats continued recovery ops.
During the re-entry, folks onboard the ship moved to the port side to get a view of recovery. Fortunately for us, it was a beautiful sunny day with a few scattered clouds (perfect!!). Seas were at about 3 to 4 feet. This was probably the nicest day that we had experienced of all the days we had been at sea (including all of the URT’s). To our surprise, we actually saw Orion under parachute descent, break through the clouds at about 1,500’ or so, and observed the moment of splashdown. The upper levels of the ships decks were populated with sailors and NASA folks to get a view of this amazing recovery activity. As we came closer to Orion, the ship and small boats maneuvered to place Orion off the stern of the ship as the initial steps for recovery approach. By now the Anchorage stern gate was open and all team members onboard were positioned for ship-based recovery operations. Sailors responsible for line handling were in position on the port and starboard catwalks (area above the flooded well) to retrieve recovery lines. As this activity was underway, the small boats moved Orion to about 250’ off the stern, a winch line from the ship was sent out to the divers, was attached to the Orion handling harness, and the slow process of bringing her onboard was underway. When Orion was just about at the sill of the stern gate, the lines attached to the Orion harness were passed off from the small boat team to the sailors onboard. At this time Orion was under full control by the Anchorage team. The capsule was maneuvered onboard and placed in a temporary holding area, the well deck drained and a crew sent down into the well to inspect and secure Orion. There was a big sigh of relief from all as we realized we had conducted a successfully recovery.
On the following days we traveled back to San Diego as we were approximately 700 miles or so off the coast of the Baja Peninsula (Southwest of NBSD). During our transit, we stopped temporarily on the lee side of San Clemente Island to re-position Orion into its handling fixture (formerly known as the Crew Module Recovery Cradle – CMRC). Once the USS Anchorage was safely docked and secured along the pier, the off-load process began. Some of us were allowed to head to our hotels and sleep in a “full size” bed with regular size rooms with 8’ plus ceilings (I probably didn’t mention this before but the ceilings onboard the ship are very low, probably about 6’6” or so). It was a tremendous sight to be back on dry land (I love the Ocean, but I love the feel of solid earth much, much more). The off-load occurred in the evening with the news media and dignitaries from various elements on scene to get a first look at the recovered Orion. I must say that the local press and NASA PAO did an excellent job of making the public aware of this joint venture between NASA and the Navy. There was a great turnout and it was highly publicized.
Orion was transferred from the ship to the NBSD “Mole Pier”. A temporary protected area was established and technical teams began some initial forensics of the vehicle. This was a controlled area with a minimum level of contamination protection invoked. After two days of some minimum collection of materials sampling, photo documentation and vehicle prep for shipment, Orion was loaded into its transport carrier and placed on a flatbed truck for transit back to KSC.
The trip back to KSC took about six days or so with the team only allowed to travel in the daylight hours. Of course they had an escort through each state for the entire trip. Orion arrived safely back at KSC and was off-loaded, and more detailed engineering assessments continued.
The last time I saw the vehicle was when it was being hoisted by a crane and placed into its transport carrier for the journey to KSC.
There were many highlights during my support onboard for the at-sea exercises and mission recovery operations and it certainly was an experience of a lifetime. I know I was very fortunate to be provided this opportunity to support NASA and become involved with the Navy, and help put this joint team back on the road to developing processes to safely recovery our astronauts and spacecraft.
Looking forward to EM1 and subsequent missions!!
Personal account written by Imagery Integration Lead Dan Smith.