NORFOLK, Va. — During the glory days of the U.S. space program in the 1960s and '70s, astronauts returning to Earth splashed down at sea in their capsules and were picked up by the Navy in a triumphant moment that made for stirring TV. Now, NASA and the Navy are training again for the first such recovery in more than a generation
On Thursday, the Navy completed several days of tests, practicing the retrieval of an unmanned mock-up of the Orion capsule that the United States hopes to send someday to an asteroid and Mars. Navy divers and the crew of the USS Arlington carried out the exercise in the calm waters of the Elizabeth River at a Naval Station Norfolk pier.
In a break with the past, the Navy doesn't plan to use helicopters to retrieve Orion, though they will be available on standby. Instead, an amphibious transport ship will come close to the capsule and dispatch divers and small boat teams to secure it.
More training and testing of the recovery procedure are planned in the coming years. Astronauts will not fly into space aboard Orion until 2021 at the earliest.
SpaceX, a private company that has sent three of its Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station so far, has been retrieving its unmanned capsules from the Pacific since 2010, without Navy involvement.