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Monday, December 10, 2012


I've been a big space buff since I was a child. I've devoured innumerable books, documentaries, television shows and films about the still-new history of human spaceflight. But it was only this weekend that I began to wonder about an improbable but not impossible scenario.

Back in the days of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, space capsules with returning astronauts would land at sea; they'd parachute into the ocean in a target zone relatively close to ships of the US Navy. Said ships would retrieve the capsule and astronaut.

Sometimes capsules would land quite far away from their intended landing zones, meaning astronauts would have to wait, bobbing in their capsule, for the Navy to find them. But what if the opposite occurred? Sometimes capsules splashed down within a mere kilometre of the recovery zone. What if one of those capsules came down right on target - onto the deck of one of the recovery ships?

There are many factors at play here. Presumably radar and spotters aboard ship would quickly figure out that the capsule was going to land really, really close. Is an aircraft carrier nimble enough to dodge a falling capsule once the captain realizes there could be a collision? If so, no problem, and an easy pickup. But if not...

Weight is another factor. Mercury capsules held one astronaut, Gemini, two, Apollo, three. None had braking rockets, unlike Soviet capsules, designed to land on dry land. Even landing on water could be quite rough for the astronauts, so slamming into a flight deck might be disastrous. Would the astronauts survive? Would the flight deck be severely damaged? What if a capsule landed in the middle of a patrol boat rather than an aircraft carrier? Or what if it came down scraping along the side of the conning tower before it actually hit the deck? Would there be an earsplitting yet cartoonish "BONG" as the capsule slammed into the ship?

I wonder about these things sometimes.


Totty said...

I seem to recall a TV show/movie back in the day did just that. I have a feeling it was of the Don Knotts variety but couldn't swear to it. I distinctly remember the capsule landing on the aircraft carrier though.

Fracture said...

I'm guessing there is a reasonable chance for survival - initially. Russian capsules don't splash down. They're probably descending more slowly than an American capsule, but not by much.

A water landing isn't exactly soft, and the capsule manages that intact and water tight.

The astronauts are well restrained and basically "reverse in", so are well supported. I bet they could take a considerably harder impact than intended with few injuries.

Still a guess, but if I was writing a screenplay, they'd bounce off the deck. The damaged craft would land in the water and quickly sink, likely drowning them.

An aircraft carrier is a tiny target. The odds of hitting it instead of the ocean, even if they were actively trying to "catch" it would be about zero.

I also remember a recent decent by a Russian capsule that followed a ballistic rather than recovery trajectory because of a computer fault. It pulled some impressive re-entry G's and landed very hard, but everyone survived.

"The Best Of Jeff Worlds" said...

You'd have a capsule land directly on the deck of a ship because your production budget didn't allow for a helicopter retrieval. Don Knotts movies could never afford helicopter retrievals.

Beyond that, Russian and American capsules used multiple parachutes to manage final descent. Ideally, a capsule would not land much harder than the soldiers and equipment in D-Day.

If I was writing the screenplay, the capsule would indeed be caught on deck, but there would be no communication. The suspicious technicians would begin to advance on the steaming ship with apprehension and chromed-steel wrenches. The hatch would open with a hiss, and leather bikini-clad ubervixens in spiked heels would emerge, their eyes aflame with dark eldritch lightning, their diamond blazoned alien war crests displayed prominently upon proud athetic bosoms, whips cracking like lightning, the hapless astronaut hostages their fealty-sworn slaves for life and afterlife. Get the President on the phone right now, dammit, right now!!!

"The Best Of Jeff Worlds (a)" said...

Just thinking back over that, perhaps the problem wouldn't be so much that if a ahip was within a few hundred metres of a capsule landing site that it could catch the capsule on deck...

... in order of the ship to catch the capule, it would have to move into position...

... likely, it would have to keep moving, like an outfielder catching a fly ball...

... except that if the outfielder misses the ball, the ball does not end up under the keel of a moving aircraft carrier and then the astronauts and equipment don't get chopped into bits by the whirling propellers because Ichiro has a much shorter stopping distance than the USS Hornet.

Don Knotts was one super lucky astronaut bastard. He should be buying lottery tickets.