NASA Prepares for What Could Go Wrong When Artemis Astronauts Return to Earth

Training for the Artemis II mission at Kennedy Space Center.
Members of NASA's Orion crew recovery team (right, red helmets) gather as the test capsule is hoisted out of the water during training for the Artemis II mission at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, Launch Complex 39, Feb. 6, 2023. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — The 5,000 mph reentry was a rough one and one of the four astronauts who just spent a week orbiting the moon has a spinal injury.

“Backboard!” screams one of the rescue crew venturing into the Orion capsule floating in the water.

That was the scenario being practiced by NASA’s Landing and Recovery team for Artemis II, which plans to fly humans beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time in more than 50 years as the first crewed mission of the Artemis program, an orbital trip around the moon and back.

The launch is not slated until 2024, but teams are already prepping for a safe landing at Kennedy Space Center.

A massive crane lifted a stand-in for the Orion capsule called the Crew Module Test Article into the water adjacent the Vehicle Assembly Building and within sight of the launch pads at KSC as NASA and Department of Defense teams played out the “contingency rescue.”

“They’ve got four guinea pigs in there,” said Mark Vazquez a program manager with NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems based at KSC. “I’m sorry, astronauts.”

Actually, the four test crew were all humanspart of the Landing and Recovery team, including its director, Lillian Villareal. All sported pale green flight suits for what ended up being a sun-soaked day with a light breeze and calm waters.

A keen eye could spot a small Darth Vader decal attached to the side of the black capsule, which was given the name Vehicle Advanced Demonstrator for Emergency Rescue, or V.A.D.E.R.

For Monday’s test, response personnel circled the floating capsule on personal watercraft just like they would approach it if it had made its descent from space and splashed down off the coast of California. They deployed an inflatable horseshoe-shaped collar to surround the capsule that fills up enough that astronauts can stand on it.

Then what’s called the “Front Porch,” another inflatable, but with a 20-person capacity, gets deployed as the first three astronaut stand-ins were assisted from the capsule, taking their seats like tourists boarding a water ride at a theme park.

Then the backboard team moved in to fetch the final crew member, with two venturing inside the capsule, two at the hatch and two on the Front Porch never having less than four sets of hands to gently extract the pretend victim and safely secure them into place.

In an actual landing, the Artemis II crew, which will feature three NASA astronauts and one Canadian astronaut, will aim for a splashdown in one of several Pacific sites within 1,400 miles of San Diego.

“We have a requirement to extract them within two hours,” Vazquez said. “Obviously we want to beat that.”

When it flies, it will become the first crewed mission to the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972, although it won’t be landing on the surface, just orbiting the moon similar to how Artemis I did during its successful uncrewed test flight in late 2022.

Artemis III aims to return humans including the first woman to the surface of the moon on a mission still on NASA’s calendar for 2025.

The KSC testing is the second stop in what NASA calls a crawl-walk-run approach to testing rescue operations for the capsule, said Timothy Goddard, the open water lead with Exploration Ground Systems. Simulations will get more complex to help prepare for a variety of potential problems.

He was standing atop the capsule barking safety reminders to the Space Force pararescue teams as they made their approach.

“I was just reminding them and kind of coaching them,” he said. “Attach this line here, cinch this, make sure you attach this before you attach that ... so we don’t hurt people in the capsule itself.”

The rescue apparatus and procedures apply in part to not just Orion, but also the crewed SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Starliner capsules. The recovery operations for all three are born out of the Apollo program, Goddard said, crediting former NASA recovery director Milt Heflin and Air Force pararescue Chief Master Sgt. Don Shelton for helping shape the operations in place now.

“They were instrumental in teaching us how to build the hardware, refine the hardware, put a 21st-century spin on what they performed and designed and developed back in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s,” Goddard said. “So we’ve taken their institutional knowledge and tribal knowledge and converted it into the ground support system you have today.”

The rescue teams with Space Launch Delta 45 based out of Patrick Space Force Base play a key role in rescue operations for all crewed launches from the Space Coast. So Maj. Chris Creveling was on hand with fellow guardians to assist in the day’s rescue.

“A lot of the training that we’ll do for Artemis will mirror what we do for (Commercial Crew Program), which is very convenient.” he said. “This is fantastic. This is a really great opportunity for us. This is the first time our guys have really been able to get their hands on this capsule.”

As part of the testing, the capsules are first put through the wringer at the National Buoyancy Lab in Houston. This Orion test capsule already endured extremes such as 6- to 8-foot wave simulations with wind gusts up to 30 mph, something Goddard said they would avoid in the event of a real landing.

Testing at KSC will continue until either April or May before the capsule gets shipped out to San Diego for at least three more tests in the Pacific Ocean for what is expected to be less calm conditions. This isn’t the first Orion test capsule to go through water tests, but it is the first with all the parts to support a human flight, which is the goal of Artemis II.

“This was the culmination of about 10 years worth of work to put this capsule in the water,” Goddard said.


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