Four miles off the coast of Galveston, astronauts in bright orange spacesuits are crawling out of a capsule in the shape of a cone. That capsule is a mock version of NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The astronauts are practicing how to evacuate from it once it splashes down in the ocean.
The astronauts went back and forth from Orion to a raft preparing for different circumstances. Astronaut Suni Williams helped develop the procedure.
“It’s also a test of all the equipment and all the assumptions we’ve made leading up to this,” Williams says. “To make sure the raft is good, to make sure the survival equipment is good, the radio, how the rescue forces would actually come and present themselves.”
NASA says what makes Orion special is its ability to go in to deep space — and possibly traveling to Mars. And when it lands in the ocean, it can sustain a crew for 24 hours.
“Another scenario is the capsule touches down and rescue forces or recovery forces are not there, and they have to get out themselves,” Williams says. “So they deploy a raft and they jump out the side hatch and get into the raft and start their survival waiting for rescue forces to get there.”
Once the spacecraft is pulled from the Gulf, NASA will assess all factors that need to be improved and plan to retest.
NASA’s Dustin Gohmert, who serves as the Orion Crew Survival Team Lead, said it’s important to test these procedures outside the controlled environment of the labratory.
“It’s not nearly as controlled out in the real world,” he says. “But in the real world, things behave differently. And so waves make you to stumble inside the vehicle, make the raft drift differently. The currents will pull the lines that hold the rafts taught to the vehicle in different ways and create chaos we hadn’t previously anticipated. So it’s important to get out of the laboratory and into the actual operational environment to make sure we haven’t overlooked anything.”
Gohmert said his team will take videos and reports from this week’s tests back to the lab and use them to improve pieces of hardware on Orion, the rescue raft, the astronauts’ spacesuits, etc. and bring it all back to the field to test again in several months to a year.