KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — In a sight not normally seen at the Kennedy Space Center, an Orion spacecraft sat bobbing in the waters near the facility's iconic Vehicle Assembly Building.

While this particular capsule won’t be going on a voyage to the moon, NASA officials say it does serve a key role in the run-up to the upcoming Artemis II mission, which is expected to launch in 2024.

What You Need To Know

  • Members of the Landing and Recovery team at Kennedy Space Center trained for astronaut water-rescue Monday

  • Officials say the training is a key step to supporting crew aboard the upcoming Artemis II mission

  • The team will eventually head out west to the coast of California for open ocean training later in 2023

  • The flight crew for the Artemis II mission will join in the rescue simulations later this year

Onboard the Crew Module Test Article (CMTA) were four crew members of NASA’s Landing and Recovery team, a multi-agency group in charge of safely helping astronauts exit the Orion crew module before they are transferred to a recovery vessel.

“It’s been great," said NASA’s Timothy Goddard. "So, the first week, we were doing engineering evaluations. We do verification validation. That’s how we certify this capsule to be a certified floating vessel in the eyes of the Coast Guard so we can take this out to an open ocean environment, put folks inside and safely operate.” 

Goddard spent much of Monday’s exercise perched on top of the CMTA, named the Vehicle Advanced Demonstrator for Emergency Rescue (VADER). The matte-black capsule has a small decal of the iconic Star Wars Sith lord next to the main hatch.

Since coming to NASA following a career as a diver for the U.S. Navy, Goddard has two primary roles: At Kennedy Space Center, he is the open water lead for Exploration Ground Systems; and at Johnson Space Center, he is the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) flight lead.

The team performed simulations of regular or “nominal” recoveries over the past week. On Monday, they did a trial run of a so-called “contingency rescue,” performing as if one of the astronauts had a spinal injury. Goddard said their response is similar to what they would do for a swift-water or a high-angle rescue in a different scenario.

“We strap them down to the stretcher and then, if you noticed, we put two folks inside, two folks at the door at the transition point and then, we had two other rescue men in the front porch, which is a 20-man life raft,” Goddard explained. “So, at all points during the transition itself, you have four points of contact. So, even if it were to get away from one, two or even three, you have a fourth person with a hand on and it’s a nice, smooth slide effect.”

In a normal Artemis mission, the capsule will splash down in the Pacific Ocean near the coast of southern California. At that point, Navy divers, who are trained by the Space Launch Delta 45, will retrieve the astronauts and assist them onto the U.S.S. Portland.

Maj. Chris Creveling, the chief of Contingency Rescue at SLD 45’s Detachment 3, was the combat systems operator for the 79th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona before making his way to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station a year ago.

“This is fantastic — this is a really great opportunity for us," he said. "This is the first time our guys have really been able to get hands-on this capsule with all the NASA equipment package.

“So, all the orange rafts you see floating around there are specific to CCP (Commercial Crew Program) and Artemis as well. So, us being able to do that is really — I can’t stress the importance of being able to do that.”

Creveling said while the bulk of the training for CCP is done in Florida, the lion’s share of the training for Artemis crewed missions will happen at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at Johnson Space Center in Houston. The massive pool allows them to control variables with the water conditions, like wave height.

As the CCP was being established, they created an interchangeable system of recovery hardware that could serve both the SpaceX Dragon along with Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft when they land.

What comes next?

This week wraps up the full work with the Department of Defense personnel. Mark Vazquez, the Landing and Recovery Operation manager for Exploration Ground Systems, said the next steps will be to clean up the nearly 20,000-pound CMTA and then ship it out to San Diego, Calif., sometime between March and April.

“And then we have what we call an Underway Recovery Training Event. We’re up to number 10,” Vazquez said. “We’ve done 10 events so far, the 11th will actually include this CMTA for the very first time and we’ll do the extraction and open water with the Navy LPDs (Landing Platform Docks).”

Vazquez said the next planned URT is anticipated in August, which will have actual astronauts observing the operation aboard the Navy LPD to get an up-close look at how the recovery will look.

“They’ll be able to provide inputs, whether or not they actually would like to participate, you know, get inside the CMTA,” he said. “Obviously, I would love to see that happen. And then we’ll go from there as far as being able to develop procedures, put plans, contingencies, all that rolls into that planning.”

Vazquez has been working towards these tests for the past two years. The CMTA was finalized at the Kennedy Space Center and he said it’s gratifying to see it getting put through its paces from a frame used for drop tests to now being able to train actual crew recoveries.

“Just knowing that I can really get four people in there, in a confined space and then be able to see them come out of it, brings a lot of satisfaction, knowing that all that work that we did in the last two years is, you know, really been worth it,” he said.

Apollo to Artemis

In addition to there being some crossover from the Commercial Crew Program to the Artemis program, the recovery work also harkens back to the last time NASA sent people to the moon through the Apollo program.

Goddard said when he first began with this work around 2008, they were able to call upon the expertise of Milt Heflin, a recovery engineer for eight Apollo splashdowns, and Don Shelton, an Air Force pararescueman.

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

As they move towards testing on the open ocean, they’ll return to the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston where they have full environmental control. Goddard said for the real deal, they aim to abide by the rules of the Design Standards for National Environment (DSNE).

Goddard said that means no waves above the 6- to 8-foot range with about 7- to 10-second intervals and winds under 20 knots sustained.

“Think about going to the beach — anytime it’s unsafe to just swim in the water, that’s about the conditions that we’re looking for to do a rescue or nominal end-of-mission operation,” Goddard said. “You remember, they have to jump out of an airplane. The winds have to be slow enough to where they can target and traject themselves down to the capsule and once they get in the water, they have to operate small boats.”

“If the waves are too big, it just makes it both unsafe for the rescue recovery forces as well as the flight crew,” he added.

With training progressing towards the first crewed mission of the Artemis program, Goddard said this is a good way to wrap up a 30-year career with NASA.

“This is a great mission to support," he said. "We’re finally going back to the moon and it’s been such a pleasure and honor to be able to support this for the last decade.”