By Cmdr. William H. Shipp
After five detachments and more than a year of planning, training and execution, the Sailors of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 8 reached the culmination of their efforts when they helped recover NASA’s Orion spacecraft’s crew module after its first spaceflight test.
With the goal of reinvigorating its human space flight program, NASA test-launched the Orion in December, marking an important milestone for deep space exploration—one destination being Mars.
The U.S. Navy became involved when NASA’s Orion air operations and capsule parachute assembly system (CPAS) teams requested U.S. Navy sea-based helicopter support to complete the extensive testing requirements to certify the crew module (CM) for manned space missions and ensure their safe recovery upon re-entry.
Built on the Apollo-era crew module, Orion’s CM requires a water landing when it returns to Earth. Helicopters were needed to provide aerial tracking, as well as carry two teams of NASA photographers, videographers, air operations personnel and CPAS members to document testing and the Orion’s inaugural flight.
The Navy’s MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter was able to satisfy NASA’s unique requirements. Equipped with a suite of advanced sensors-the Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MTS) and Remotely Oriented Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER) system-the footage and data captured by aircrew could instantly stream to NASA engineers aboard any surface vessel, and, via satellite uplink, be relayed to the Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. The Knighthawk’s large cabin and lift capacity satisfied transport requirements, enabling aerial analysis of the CM. This capability to observe and rapidly deliver integrated data was a critical enabler to the success of the mission.
Prior to the inaugural flight of the Orion Space Capsule, dubbed Expeditionary Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), the HSC-8 “Eightballers” participated in four detachments to prepare for the actual launch. This included two CM drop tests at the Army’s Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona, in which the capsule was released from an Air Force C-17 at 35,000 feet. Following two land drops, NASA conducted two Underway Readiness Test (URT) events near San Clemente Island, off the coast of southern California. One URT event was conducted from USS San Diego (LPD 22) and the other onboard USS Anchorage (LPD 23).
Combining lessons learned from these detachments and trajectory data from thousands of CM re-entry simulations, NASA engineers and HSC-8 pilots formulated a plan that would precisely position two airborne MH-60S helicopters during the actual recovery event. Both helicopters and their embarked teams were positioned to detect the CM entering the atmosphere and track it using the MTS’ Forward Looking Infrared and Day TV camera lens as it progressed through its re-entry sequence.
One of many unique opportunities this mission presented involved coordination with members of the rotary wing test community, Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (HX) 21, at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. The Eightballers operated in close communication with Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) to accommodate any aircraft configurations and certify installed equipment as safe for flight. NAVAIR rapidly approved flight clearances for the NASA mission, including specialized photography, videography and GPS equipment coupled to onboard computers for tracking the CM re-entry.
During the descent, NASA required the tracking of 22 separate items, from the CM itself to the forward bay cover, parachutes, multiple parachute lids and sabots. Those items falling from above the helicopters had the potential to damage the aircraft. In order to ensure the highest level of safety throughout the evolution, NASA elicited HX-21’s assistance during the planning and flight phases, deriving optimal standoff ranges based on module trajectories and developed an ideal flow of events with contingencies for a multitude of off-ramp scenarios.
On Dec. 1, 2014, the Eightballer team embarked aboard Anchorage with three MH-60S helicopters to begin the 600-mile trek southwest to the planned EFT-1 recovery area in the Pacific Ocean. Leading up to the test event, the NASA and Navy teams worked hand in hand to refine the recovery plan and conduct a full dress rehearsal the day prior to EFT-1’s launch. The combined efforts of NASA, Anchorage, Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and HSC-8 resulted in a streamlined plan for coordinated operations between air operations and the water recovery team for the CM and CPAS equipment.
During coordination meetings, the HSC-8 maintenance team worked to ensure all three embarked aircraft would be ready. They quickly corrected discrepancies in the ROVER system identified during the dress rehearsal, and in the end, provided fully mission-capable aircraft that streamed seamless video from the helicopters to NASA engineers aboard Anchorage.
On Dec. 5, the Orion Space Capsule took to the skies aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy Rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. After completing two orbits around the Earth, farther than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has been in more than 40 years, the Orion crew module commenced its re-entry sequence.
Using the MTS, Eightballer pilots acquired the CM exactly when and where NASA engineers and imagery experts predicted, and Day TV imagery was fed from HSC-8 aircraft to NASA engineers. From that point on, the NASA teams aboard the helicopters obtained video and photos of the entire re-entry sequence, including CPAS deployment and capsule splashdown.
Following CM entry into the Pacific, helicopter-based NASA engineers steered Eightballer pilots to intercept essential articles in the water for retrieval by Anchorage and EOD boat teams while avoiding the descending debris. Although the sea claimed some CM equipment, the air operations team’s goals and objectives were exceeded and the mission accomplished.
The video footage and data gathered by the Eightballers was ultimately disseminated to millions of people around the world. From the video, NASA engineers gathered vital design and performance data about the CM and CPAS, which will lead to the safe, successful recovery of future NASA modules.
“Throughout the test event, HSC-8 members were humbled, honored and proud to have teamed with NASA for the historic event,” said Cmdr. William H. Shipp, HSC-8 Commanding Officer. “The MH-60S proved once again that it is Naval Aviation’s contingency platform of choice, able to be adapted to deliver mission effects whether over land, or afloat, in support of anti-surface warfare, personnel recovery, Special Operations Forces support, logistics, search and rescue, or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.”
Cmdr. William H. Shipp is the Commanding Officer of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 8.