In preparation for the maiden test flight of NASA's Orion spacecraft, specialists from NASA, Lockheed Martin and the US Navy this week completed testing of various recovery methods for retrieving the crew module. The testing enabled the team to assess data and prepare for different scenarios that may come into play when the craft splashes into the Pacific Ocean this December.

Orion's first test flight is scheduled for December 4, 2014, with the uncrewed voyage to take the craft 3,600 miles (5,800 km) beyond low Earth orbit before returning on the same day. The trip will allow engineers to assess data on important systems such as heat shield performance, avionic and software performance, parachute deployment and separation events.

When it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere, the 20,500 lb (9,300 kg) spacecraft will be traveling at a speed close to 20,000 mph (32,186 km/h) and be subjected to temperatures of almost 4,000° F (2,200° C). In the latest round of testing, the team employed an onboard crane to retrieve the crew capsule, a method that could provide an alternative to the "well deck" recovery method, where the craft is hoisted onto a flooded section of the deck.

"We learned a lot about our hardware, gathered good data, and the test objectives were achieved," says Mike Generale, NASA recovery operations manager in the Ground Systems Development and Operations Program. "We were able to put Orion out to sea and safely bring it back multiple times. We are ready to move on to the next step of our testing with a full dress rehearsal landing simulation on the next test."

"Completing recovery simulations in a real, ocean environment before EFT-1 is incredibly helpful," added Larry Price, Lockheed Martin Deputy Program Manager for the Orion program. "This test allows us to improve the procedures for handling the crew module and determine if the recovery equipment designs are precise, safe and efficient."

Sources: NASA, Lockheed Martin