A crew begins steps to remove Artemis's Orion capsule from the USS Portland. Photo by Ken Stone
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America’s Finest Spaceport?

San Diego’s success in fetching the moon-orbiting Orion capsule off Baja and bringing it back safely to Naval Base San Diego could solidify the city as the default way station for future Artemis missions.

As international media ogled the partially charred spacecraft Tuesday, an Artemis mission leader said landings off San Diego could be the default.

“Currently that’s the baseline,” said Melissa Jones, transitioning from being Artemis recovery director to the program’s chief of operations.

“But as we refine the mission and the objectives and the mechanics of it, … it could change,” she said.

NASA’s own glossary defines baseline as “an agreed-to set of requirements, designs or documents that will have changes controlled through a formal approval and monitoring process.”

In other words, the first manned Artemis mission in 2024 could conclude with a stop in San Diego as well.

Shannon Walker of Houston, a veteran of two International Space Station missions (totaling 330 days in space), is among 42 active astronauts eligible for Artemis. A third of them are female.

Asked if she’d like to be the first woman to walk on the moon, Walker, 57, said: “Yeah, that would be all right.”

She was among 150 NASA, Air Force and other officials joining the 400-plus crew members of the USS Portland on its pickup voyage.

The Portland, among the newest of the San Antonio class of amphibious transport docks, also called LDP for “landing platform, dock,” was the fifth Navy ship to practice winching the spaceship into its flooded well deck.

On Wednesday morning, at high tide, the Orion will be offloaded at the Navy base, given more checks and prepared for a 13-day truck trip to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The public won’t see much, however.

The capsule will be covered, and the trip will be at night, expected to start Sunday.

“You won’t see a capsule driving down the road,” said Jones, who began her job as recovery chief in 2015.

Capt. John “Jack” Ryan, commander of the Portland, was all smiles.

“In my 23 years with the Navy, this is probably the coolest mission I’ve ever been on,” he said. “It’s also the first one that was ever live-streamed (by NASA) while we were doing the mission.”

Unlike the Apollo missions of yore, where pickup ships could be 100 miles away from splashdown, the Portland was only 3 nautical miles (3 1/2 regular miles) away from Orion when it gently parachuted down to the Pacific 300 miles south of San Diego.

“It was almost like an emotional response,” Ryan said. “It hit the water, and the ship broke out into a cheer. It was really a great moment.”

USS Portland crew members were given souvenir bags by NASA. Photo by Ken Stone

Kelvin Manning, deputy operations director at Kennedy Space Center, flew in from Florida to view the Orion and meet with media.

He said modern GPS and space-based systems account for the precision landing after a 25 1/2-day, 1.4 million mile journey.

The Orion may be destined for some museum, but its complete data has yet to mined — including sensors attached to a male mannequin named Cmdr. Moonikin Campos and two female torsos named Helga and Zohar.

Astronaut Walker said the mannequins were fitted with different sensors. They were still inside the four-seat craft Tuesday after the Portland’s docking that morning.

“I think it looks pretty good,” Walker said of the 16-foot-diameter craft. “It definitely looks like it’s come back from space. Everything is charred and burned away like it should.”

Space Center leader Manning said several avionics boxes from the Orion will be salvaged for the first manned Artemis mission — which will circle the moon but not land.

Manning was asked his biggest surprise of the mission.

“How clean it was overall,” he said, referring to it being problem-free. “It’s a test flight. We wanted to push the limits and stress the system and to see things that just clicked off so perfectly — it was amazing.”

Recovery leader Jones used similar language.

“This team is a well-oiled machine,” she said. “We’ve had five underway tests to develop this (recovery process) …. It was pretty much like clockwork.”

The day Orion made its public debut, federal scientists announced that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the Bay Area had accomplished long-sought nuclear fusion that created appreciably more energy than it used.

Could fusion someday power a long-range spacecraft?

“I hope so,” Manning said. 

The Artemis mission is about going to the “moon, Mars and beyond.”

“We’re talking about the whole solar system,” Manning said. “But they’re like baby steps first. We gotta get to the moon, learn how to survive on the moon, and then go to Mars. The first step is Mars, and that’s a huge step in itself.”

The first crew-module recovery tests were in 2014 — off San Diego.

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In February of that year, NASA and the Navy suspended recovery procedures for Orion after the team experienced issues with lines securing the test capsule inside the well deck of the USS San Diego.

But seven months later — in September 2014 — the USS Anchorage arrived at Naval Base San Diego after completing a recovery test.

In November 2018, the San Diego-based dock landing ship USS John P. Murtha completed its own test recovery of the Orion capsule — the seventh in the series. The USS Somerset earlier ran recovery tests.

At the time, a first manned mission was expected in 2021.

But unlike Apollo, the Artemis 1 mission splashdown was far closer to the U.S. mainland.

Andrew Burns shows off piece of rope that winched in Orion on Sunday, part of a NASA giveaway bag handed members of the crew. Photo by Ken Stone

With the exception of Apollos 7 and 9 (in the Atlantic), the late 1960s and early 1970s landings were far west in the central or western Pacific. (Orion won’t splash down in the Atlantic — closer to Kennedy Space Center — because it would pose a hazard if it fell short while descending over the United States, NASA officials said.)

Besides NASA and Navy crews, the first to see the Orion in the Portland’s well deck were media crews representing local and internationals outlets, including The Associated Press, Agence France Presse, National Geographic and The Planetary Society.

Capt. Ryan didn’t bite when given a chance to gloat over the Portland winning the privilege to pick up Orion. He said the commanders of the USS San Diego, Somerset, Anchorage and Murtha were happy with the Navy given the mission.

“All of [the other ships’] training and all of the lessons learned helped make this a successful mission,” Ryan said.

Updated at 4:50 p.m. Dec. 13, 2022