An 18,000-pound mock-up of the Orion spacecraft that will eventually send astronauts into deep space completed a test water landing on Thursday, simulating what would happen if it fell into the Pacific Ocean with moderate seas.
The four-man ship will eventually be attached to a large rocket to escape Earth's orbit, although it doesn't yet have a destination. NASA has said it could service the space station in low Earth orbit or take four astronauts on more distant missions of up to 21 days.
During the test, the capsule approached the hydro impact basin _ which looked like a large swimming pool _ at a speed of 22 mph, creating a large splash and stopping in a net without rolling over.
"This is exactly what we wanted to see," said Lynn Bowman from Langley.
The strictly controlled trial is one in a series that began this summer that researchers are conducting to ensure the spacecraft doesn't fall apart upon impact. The next test is Nov. 8.
"We want to make sure the spacecraft stays intact when it does hit, and of course at the same time, you want to keep the astronauts safe," said Bowman, who is NASA Langley Research Center's Orion SPLASH project manager.
The capsule lacked the seats and internal instruments that the real spacecraft will have, but other more detailed mock-ups that are undergoing testing in Colorado will later be tried at Langley.
Among other things, scientists were testing what would happen if only two of the capsule's three parachutes were working. Researchers controlled the speed, angle of approach and the capsule's angle to simulate the conditions they wanted as it landed in a basin that is 115 feet long and 90 feet wide.
The Orion capsule was a cornerstone of former President George W. Bush's plan to return astronauts to the moon. NASA gave Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., a $7.5 billion contract in 2006 to build it.
Lockheed Martin officials have said Orion could explore the far side of the moon, land humans on asteroids or take them to one of the moons of Mars, where they could control robotic instruments on the surface.
"The ultimate destination is still getting to Mars, but we're a ways off from that," said Dave Bowles, director of exploration and space operations at Langley. "There are some very technical challenges going on that duration type of a mission."
Online: NASA Langley Research Center http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/mpcv/mpcv-phase1-test1.html
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis