If you've ever wondered what happens at the moment that an astronaut's return capsule hits the sea, you're not alone. NASA engineers think about it rather a lot, which is why they have been dropping the new Orion module, full of crash-test dummies, into a huge swimming pool. Images: NASA
The space agency points out that for the briefest of moments, even after decelerations with parachutes, the impact with the sea creates "the mission's greatest deceleration and with that, some of the greatest forces on the human body". So, uh, they better get it right, because NASA's Orion module is planned to touch down — or more accurately, splashdown — in the Pacific Ocean.
So, the engineers do the only sensible thing and load up a module with crash test dummies, then drop it into NASA Langley Research Center's 6m-deep Hydro Impact Basin. "Not only can we learn how the structure reacts to a water impact in these tests, but we can also understand how splashdown loads are transmitted to the seats and crew," explains Mark Baldwin, who is the crew injury lead for Orion at Lockheed Martin.
The dummies aren't dumb, though: They're covered with sensors that provide the team with data about what happens during impact. That allows them to understand what happens to the body, allowing them to ensure the potential for injury at impact is minimized.
So far, the team has carried out four drops into the pool. But it will now embark on a series of "swing" tests that investigate what happens if the capsule enters the water at unusual angles. Hold tight, dummies.