(Dec. 11, 2022) Amphibious transport dock USS Portland (LPD 27) prepares to recover the NASA Artemis I Orion spacecraft I the Pacific Ocean, as seen from a rigid-hull inflatable boat, Dec. 11, 2022. Portland, along with Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Montgomery (LCS 8), is underway in U.S. 3rd Fleet in support of the recovery. The retrieval operation is part of a Department of Defense effort that integrates combatant command service capabilities to determine best practices for safely retrieving spacecraft capable of carrying humans into space. The U.S. Navy has many unique capabilities that make it an ideal partner for supporting NASA, including its amphibious and expeditionary capabilities with the ability to embark helicopters, launch and recover small boats, three-dimensional air search radar and advanced medical facilities. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Brittany Ott)
These are pretty cool pictures of the Navy recovering NASA’s Artemus I Orion space capsule in preparation for a return trip to the Moon in 2025. During the Apollo program, the Navy would send an entire aircraft carrier task force out to recover those capsules by helicopter which would then set it and the astronauts on the flight deck.
There were several reasons for this.
First, in the late 1960s and 70s radars and imaging satellites were not advanced enough for us to know precisely where the capsule would splash down. We had a pretty good idea to within 40 miles which is a long way away if you are the astronauts bobbing up in down on the ocean waiting to be picked up in your capsule. A carrier task force had the air search radar capabilities to see the capsule as it came down and then scramble helicopters to recover it. The aircrews doing the recovery were Navy SEALs. They would jump from the helicopter and attach a hoist cable to the top of the capsule. They were also there to rescue the astronauts should the capsule begin to sink because of damage sustained during the splashdown.
This is what happened during the Mercury program to the capsule known as Liberty Bell 7 with astronaut Gus Grisom aboard. A static charge from the helicopter discharged into the capsule when it was hovering low and cutting an antenna on the capsule to fix the lifting bale to it. The static charge probably caused the explosive bolts on the hatch to blow when it was still submerged. It filled with water and nearly drown Grisom trying to get out.
The other reason was a show of force. The Russians were out there too in the Pacific monitoring the capsule as it landed. What if the Russian navy attempted to “rescue” an Apollo spacecraft from the ocean because it happened to land closer to their ships than the US Navy?
Besides the obvious propaganda coup of “saving” a crew of American astronauts, the Russians might have several hours to examine the capsule to aid in developing their own lunar module and reentry vehicle.
We certainly couldn’t have that.
So a carrier task force with cruisers, destroyers, and an air wing aboard assured that we would be first on the scene to recover our astronauts and their craft.
Today our new satellites and GPS allow the spacecraft itself to have some control over where it lands in the ocean with enough precision that there is no need for an entire Carrier Strike Group to recover it. It may be able to set down just a few miles from the recovery ship, allowing small craft to meet it, attach tow lines and bring it to the opened well deck ramp of an Amphibious Transport Dock like the USS Portland which then winches it aboard with ropes onto a dolly.
That will reduce the cost of the program for sure compared to sending an aircraft carrier and her escorts after it.
At the bottom is a cool video of the recovery as well.