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Thread: Questions on splashdowns vs land & the early capsules

  1. #1
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    Questions on splashdowns vs land & the early capsules

    From this thread :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/ba...in-kazakhstan/

    a few questions have arisen that I'd like answers for if folks know and care to enlighten us all :

    1) What would have happened if the old Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo space capsules had landed on land rather than splashing down? Did NASA consider and test for this possibility?

    2) How about the Soviet Soyuz and Vostok capsules splashing down instead of landing on land? (Apparently, that happened accidentally once on a frozen lake & the cosmonauts got away with it okay!) Was doing that ever considered by the Soviets and tested / prepared for?

    3) "Why have the Russians continued to return cosmonauts and space related material via landing on terra firma instead of in the drink? It seems that it makes a whole lot more sense (safety especially) [that] a governmental space program would insist on returning life and hardware back with an ocean landing. Is it because the Russian navy is unable to pick up it’s mates?"

    BTW. The last question there is asked by (#17.) petroleumgeologist on the thread linked above.

    PS. Sorry about the typo in the question title. "Splashdown" not 'spalshdown' was intended obviously. Mea culpa. We can't edit titles? Seems not.
    Last edited by Messier Tidy Upper; 2011-Sep-20 at 04:10 AM. Reason: Extra note & PS added. Fixed a few typos. Plus fixed capitalisation error.

  2. #2
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    In which ocean would the Russians land? There's way more land than there is water in Russia. Additionally, ballistic reentries aren't that uncommon of a contingency (they're a safety fallback mode when something goes wrong) and they usually involve landing hundreds of kilometers off target so you'd need a lot of water.

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    Incidentally, I’m pretty sure that Russia’s navy – the USSR’s at the time was pretty powerful and advanced - maybe not quite equal to that of the United States but not too far behind. (Albeit the Kursk disaster among other things may indicate otherwise.) so I wouldn’t have thought the Russians were incapable of retrieving the capsules from the sea – but then I’m not really sure about the Russian naval capability. Maybe retreiving space capsules took specialised ships that the Soviet Union lacked? Anyone know for sure?
    Last edited by Messier Tidy Upper; 2011-Sep-20 at 04:25 AM. Reason: Because I can't type for ..anything.

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    @2. Elukka - Well, they've got the Caspian, Black and Aral Seas but as noted on the linked BA blog thread those are all pretty small and so if the landing was off .. they might've been in trouble! Mind you, I thought most of the space capsule landings were pretty much on target with a handful of exceptions? (Eg. Scott Carpenter's Mercury-7 flight & a recent Soyuz one a year or so ago?)

    Russia also has the Arctic - which presents a fairly challenging environment and maybe some trajectory issues given its high latitude and the Sea of Okhtosk north of Japan & Korea in the far north-west Pacific. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_of_Okhotsk )
    Last edited by Messier Tidy Upper; 2011-Sep-20 at 04:28 AM. Reason: typos. Getting the correctspelling for Sea of Okhotsk & link for it.

  5. #5
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    Here is my understanding. As of 1960, in the formative years of the respective programs, the USA had much stronger naval capability for supporting recovery at sea, while the USSR had vast expanses of flat, sparsely populated grassland and desert in Kazakhstan.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Messier Tidy Upper View Post
    1) What would have happened if the old Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo space capsules had landed on land rather than splashing down? Did NASA consider and test for this possibility?
    The Apollo block II capsules certainly had the capability to land on land. The couches had crushable struts to absorb the impact. The Gemini spacecraft was originally going to make a land landing under a deployable wing, but they never quite managed to make it land without doing a lot of damage to itself (and hence the pilot inside, had there been one in the tests). Mercury was probably also capable of land landing in the event of a pad abort. However, none of those were desirable from a crew safety standpoint. The ocean is big, has no obstructions in it, and if you land off target you don't come down in someone's garden!

    2) How about the Soviet Soyuz and Vostok capsules splashing down instead of landing on land? (Apparently, that happened accidentally once on a frozen lake & the cosmonauts got away with it okay!) Was doing that ever considered by the Soviets and tested / prepared for?
    The USSR is a huge land area, and large swathes of it are empty. It was considered preferable to have them land inside Soviet territory where they could be reached by land vehicles quickly. The USSR may have had a great navy, but one thing to keep in mind about their space program is that it was never given huge financial support. The original Vostok capsule was only given approval on the condition that the same design could be used for unmanned reconnaissance satellites (look at the Zenit series and compare them with Vostok!). They had no logical plan for a series of flights, and as a result there are large gaps between each Vostok flight, as the plan for each flight was heavily dependent on the success and results of the preceding flight. There was never the national support for the program in the same way as the US, often with multiple design bureaux competing for budget. At one point they had two totally separate manned lunar landing programs running side by side! Had anyone said 'by the way, we need to pull a chunk of the navy to sit at sea and try to find this 2 metre wide ball when it splashes down somehwere in the ocean, we can afford that, right?' the result would likely not have been favourable.

    3) "Why have the Russians continued to return cosmonauts and space related material via landing on terra firma instead of in the drink? It seems that it makes a whole lot more sense (safety especially) [that] a governmental space program would insist on returning life and hardware back with an ocean landing. Is it because the Russian navy is unable to pick up it’s mates?"
    If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Soyuz is quite capable of making a safe landing on land, as it has demonstrated repeatedly over the last four and a bit decades. The only crew deaths in Soyuz would have happened regardless of the surface they hit. As far as safety considerations go, would you rather have your man floating in the sea at risk of sinking, or sitting on terra firma, where he can at least shelter in the spacecraft until help arrives?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Messier Tidy Upper View Post
    Incidentally, I’m pretty sure that Russia’s navy – the USSR’s at the time was pretty powerful and advanced - maybe not quite equal to that of the United States but not too far behind. .
    In 1962 when the manned space program was getting underway, the United States had 16 aircraft carriers. The Soviet Union had 0. The US had vastly more naval power projection. This is an outgrowth of history and geography. The Soviet Union was a large land-based state. They didn't need multiple carrier battle groups. By contrast the US is isolated by two vast oceans, so developing and maintaining a large navy was natural. Also the destruction of US battleships at Pearl Harbor expedited US transition to a carrier-based naval philosophy, which continued after WWII.

    While an aircraft carrier isn't absolutely required to recover a spacecraft from the ocean, it's the best way. Due to possible contingencies and the imprecision of 1960s guidance, you don't know exactly where the spacecraft will splash down. Scouting and possible rescue aircraft must be deployed far from any land base. If the spacecraft is recovered by a helicopter, it's convenient to have a large deck to place it on. A carrier is the best way to handle this.

    Besides this, the launch ground track imposes an unyielding geographic reality. Seconds after launch a US spacecraft is over an ocean, and remains so for the initial ascent. Most abort situations will result in a water landing, so you must design for that as a primary requirement.

    By contrast, Soviet launches have a mostly land-based ground track for the initial ascent. Most abort situations will result in a land touchdown. They had to design for that as a primary requirement.

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    Quick Note.

    As it stands right now, SpaceX's dragon vehicle will be a water landing.

    http://www.spacex.com/updates.php

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    At a shopping mall in NJ I saw a Soyuz reentry capsule on loan and which was used on the ISS. The Soyuz looks like it has the buoyancy of a brick.
    Last edited by schlaugh; 2011-Sep-20 at 05:02 PM. Reason: clarity. The Soyuz was used on the ISS, not the NJ shopping mall.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Messier Tidy Upper View Post
    1) What would have happened if the old Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo space capsules had landed on land rather than splashing down? Did NASA consider and test for this possibility?
    For Gemini it was even considered to land using a Rogallo paraglider (touching down on the ground). Quite a lot of testing has been done, I think it came real close to actually being used. Somewhere in the UK in a museum they have one of the testing capsules, wheels 'n all. It was discussed in a thread in Q&A, I think a year or two ago. IIRC there's a lot of info on the NASA Technical Reports Server.

    ETA: Scottish National Museum in Edinburgh. Thread here.
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  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by schlaugh View Post
    At a shopping mall in NJ I saw a Soyuz reentry capsule on loan and which was used on the ISS. The Soyuz looks like it has the buoyancy of a brick.
    I am, sadly, too math-challenged to even calculate the exterior volume of the re-entry capsule, but just eyeballing the published stats, it looks like the capsule should float reasonably well. The habitable interior volume alone is four cubic meters, whereas the (presumably unloaded) weight is only 2900Kg.

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    Quote Originally Posted by jrkeller View Post
    As it stands right now, SpaceX's dragon vehicle will be a water landing.

    http://www.spacex.com/updates.php
    For the version currently launching. Discussion about it possibly coming down on land is related to the integrated launch abort/powered landing system. From the January 17th, 2011 update on that page: "Enables superior landing capabilities since the escape engines can potentially be used for a precise land landing of Dragon under rocket power. (An emergency chute will always be retained as a backup system for maximum safety.)"

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    Oh, no argument that the math contradicts my visual impression. It's just that the soyuz looks like it could have been designed and built by Victorian era engineers. All it needs are large rivets. In fact the cosmonauts practice egress from floating capsules.

  14. 2011-Sep-20, 07:47 PM
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    Quote Originally Posted by cjameshuff View Post
    For the version currently launching. Discussion about it possibly coming down on land is related to the integrated launch abort/powered landing system. From the January 17th, 2011 update on that page: "Enables superior landing capabilities since the escape engines can potentially be used for a precise land landing of Dragon under rocket power. (An emergency chute will always be retained as a backup system for maximum safety.)"

    I know that SpaceX is planning on land landings, but I don't expect to see that happen anytime soon. Precision landings using rockets are very difficult and are not often used. SpaceX is going to need a lot of development time and testing.

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    Thanks everyone for your informative answers here - much appreciated. :-)

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