Trial by Water

NASA tests the seaworthiness of its new moonship.


NASA plans to return to the moon by 2020, and the Orion crew exploration vehicle is scheduled to fly its first missions to the International Space Station as early as 2014. But before that can happen, recovery teams need to know how to rescue the astronauts and retrieve the capsule after a splashdown in the ocean.

Last year, NASA contacted the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division, in Bethesda, Maryland, about testing models of the Orion crew capsule—which has an interior volume nearly twice that of Apollo’s—in order to help recovery teams become familiar with the capsule’s performance.

Click on the photo gallery below to see how the Orion models have been tested in tanks, “wave ponds,” and—most recently—in the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean during two weeks of tests conducted in April 2009 (pictured above).

“What we’re looking to take away from our...testing,” says Todd Carrico, a naval architect at Carderock and lead test engineer on the project, “is to nail down the sea-keeping performance of this capsule in certain sea states. Of course, the divers are looking to give a thumbs up and say, ‘Hey, we can actually recover this thing.’”

Scale Model

(Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division)

“When we decided we were going to do a water landing,” said Alan Rhodes, part of the Orion test and verification team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, “we sat down and looked at all the different things we needed to review, all the things we hadn’t done with this new design.”

For starters, the engineers at Carderock built a 1/10-scale model to verify the flooding potential of the full-scale model. “It’s a long way to go from a computer to a physical object,” explains Mark Melendez, a mechanical engineer and solid modeling expert at Carderock. And the engineers wanted to see whether their test article would flood.

Lockheed Martin sent Melendez three different models of Orion, from various stages of the design cycle. Using stereolithography (a fabrication process using a liquid resin and a laser to build parts one layer at a time), Melendez constructed a see-through 1/10-scale model.

“All of the detail that’s inside the full-scale model,” says Todd Carrico, Carderock's lead test engineer on the project, “is in the 1/10-scale model. And because of the nature of the material—it’s transparent—we could see the flooding potential very easily.”

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