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.