While Florida, Texas and Pasadena, California are often the epicenter of NASA’s space world here on Earth, San Diego will have its moonlit moment when the Orion spacecraft completes its final leg of the Artemis mission. I Sunday.
Orion – the capsule that will one day carry America’s first woman and first person of color to the lunar surface, and could eventually take humans to Mars – completed its final orbits around the moon on Monday and was starting its punch towards the Pacific Ocean.
The exact location of the splash has yet to be determined. But, if all goes according to plan, Orion will fall into the sea about 50 miles off the coast of America’s Most Beautiful City on Sunday afternoon.
The visual guide below outlines each phase of the Artemis I mission. Click on phase three to see what awaits Orion when he returns to Earth on Sunday. Learn more here.
A recovery team comprised of NASA Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) engineers and technicians and divers and sailors from the USS Portland Navy have been in San Diego since just after Thanksgiving to practice their role in this which should be an exciting return.
The team trained for three days off the coast to roll up a dummy capsule and load it onto the Naval Base San Diego ship, which was selected to be an amphibious vessel with both a cockpit and what is called a well bridge leading to the ocean.
“The mission we are carrying out is amphibious in nature; it’s just… normally we pick up watercraft or hovercraft, instead of doing that we just grab orbit,” USS Portland Captain John Ryan said.
Video from the practice shows more than a dozen Navy sailors aboard multiple boats encountering a fake Orion at sea. After installing a series of cables and hooks on the ship, a line known as a winch pulls Orion into a yellow cradle inside the ship’s well deck. The water is then released back to sea and a secured Orion is carried ashore.
Sounds easy in theory, but any miscalculation, any bump on Orion could be detrimental to the capsule.
When it comes time to recover the real Orion, the whole process will take about six hours, enough time to also complete a series of critical tests and data collection for future missions. For example, the heat shield that will prevent Orion, and ultimately the astronauts, from burning up as it passes through Earth’s atmosphere in temperatures of 5,000 degrees must undergo about an hour and a half of image data collection before the recovery team can fire aboard the USS Portland.
“This mission is all about data collection, so the recovery time will be about six hours,” said Melissa Jones, NASA Landing and Recovery Coordinator. “We capture a lot of this data for our flight test purposes; we will be very careful with the capsule. We are ready and honored as an integrated team to bring Orion home on the final leg of his journey.
If Orion were manned, the recovery team would only have about two hours to get their astronauts to earth for a medical evaluation.
“All we’re doing right now is really learning how to move forward with crewed missions,” Jones added.
While the recovery process has been solidified, one major factor is literally left up in the air – where exactly is Orion going to splash? Everything will depend on Jones and flight director Judd Frieling.
The ideal location for the “meeting site”, as the crew calls it, is where the recovery team once trained, a location in a fleet training area controlled by the ‘US Navy called ‘San Deigo site 3’. But using this site depends on a number of weather factors, including wind speed and wave patterns. If site 3 is not an option, there are several alternative sites further offshore from San Diego. And, if none of that works either, the Orion and USS Portland could end up at a rendezvous point further north toward San Clemente Island, Frieling said.
Before the recovery team can get to work, Orion must first go through a tumultuous return to Earth. Its main purpose is to avoid burning up when it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere…no small feat when you’re about 40,000 feet above the earth and moving at a speed of about 24,500 mph. During this time, the ground flight control team will lose signal with Orion for five and a half minutes.
Once the spacecraft is about 200,000 above Earth, it will turn around and return to space. “Wait… back in space?” you ask. What will appear to be a mistake is what NASA calls its new “entry jump” technique, which will essentially have Orion skidding like a rock through Earth’s atmosphere. When Orion pivots again to return to Earth, the capsule will be on a more direct path to a landing spot closer to shore – the closest in NASA history – protecting future astronauts who must land quickly to a post-evaluation of space travel.
With Orion back in the Earth sphere, the capsule will continue to decelerate using air friction. By the time the capsule reaches 150,000 feet, it will be moving at 8,500 mph; at 100,000 feet, 2,400 mph; and at 50,000 feet it will slow to just 528 mph. Parachutes will be launched to eventually slow Orion to a measly 20 mph, which is the speed Orion will be moving at as it drops into the Pacific Ocean.
Artemis is NASA’s moonshot program, which aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface of the moon by 2025.
The recovery team takes over from there and that’s when the work of Navy Boatsmate 2nd Class Matthew Foster begins. As helmsman, he will maneuver the boat that tows Orion to the USS Portland. He took a course in conjunction with the Department of Defense and NASA to get proper training for this part of the mission – and he doesn’t want to mess it up.
“It’s pretty much a once-in-a-career thing. No one ever really gets such a chance,” Foster said, adding that he thought, “Don’t mess up, just do this. what I was trained to do.”
He knows his role is only a small part of a program that could eventually take humanity to deep space.
The Artemis I mission is just the first phase of NASA’s Moonshot program. The next phase of the mission will have the first humans aboard a NASA spacecraft in 50 years. And, Phase III intends to land them on the moon.
“When we’re talking about sustained exploration on the lunar surface and going to Mars, Artemis I is that step,” James Free, NASA exploration systems development associate, said in August. “Our next step beyond that is Artemis II, we’re putting a crew on II. Artemis III, we’re also on the precipice where we’re going to land the first woman and the first person of color in this Artemis program.”
There are even bigger goals for Artemis IV, according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson: to travel in space from the Moon to Mars.
Eventually, NASA hopes to establish a base on the Moon and send astronauts to Mars by the late 2030s or early 2040s. And, when mankind looks to humanity’s next giant leap, we can look back knowing that San Diego was just a small step to get them there.
NASA will broadcast live coverage of Orion’s re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and splashdown off San Diego here beginning at 11 a.m. on Sunday, December 11.
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