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NASA Tests Mars Capsule For Recovery Off San Diego

The test model of the capsule for the Orion spacecraft is tethered to a lift, Nov. 3, 2016.
Matthew Bowler
The test model of the capsule for the Orion spacecraft is tethered to a lift, Nov. 3, 2016.

NASA Tests Mars Capsule For Recovery Off San Diego
The agency plans to use the waters off San Diego to splashdown future expeditions to Mars and other long-range missions. In the meantime, the area will be the site for an increasing number of tests.

NASA and the crew of the USS San Diego were in the waters off San Diego for the past two weeks, testing methods to recover a full-scale unmanned model of the capsule for the Orion spacecraft.

They're working on ways to retrieve the spacecraft at sea. NASA hasn’t picked up astronauts after a splashdown since the 1970s. None of the people from the old Apollo missions are working on Orion.

“This capsule is different from Apollo," said Melissa Jones, NASA director of landing and recovery. "The technology is different. The weight is different. Probably our standards for design are different. We’ve learned a lot since 1975 and the time before that.”

Melissa Jones, NASA's director of landing and recovery, shows some of the new design elements for the test capsule for the Orion spacecraft, Nov. 3, 2016.
Matthew Bowler
Melissa Jones, NASA's director of landing and recovery, shows some of the new design elements for the test capsule for the Orion spacecraft, Nov. 3, 2016.

The capsule is 20,000 pounds heavier than the Apollo, which was designed for a crew of three. Orion can carry least four, and possibly six crew members.

NASA has a goal of landing a crew on Mars by 2035. It will take years of lobbying Congress to find the funding. In the meantime, the agency has planned a series of incremental tests to prepare.

NASA has decided they will use the waters off San Diego for future splashdowns. Putting the landing site near the Navy's assets in San Diego is one way to cut costs.

NASA is planning an unmanned trip around the moon in 2018 and a manned mission in 2021, said Tom Walker, recovery and rescue leader for the Orion.

The next test of the capsule recovery system is scheduled for December 2017. Three more tests will follow in 2018.