Splashdown (spacecraft landing)
Atlantic Ocean splashdowns of American spacecraft.
Pacific Ocean splashdowns of American spacecraft.
Splashdown is the method of landing a spacecraft by parachute in a body of water. It was used by American manned spacecraft prior to the Space Shuttle program. It is also possible for the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft to land in water, though this is only a contingency. The only example of the splashdown in Soviet history is Soyuz 23 landing.
As the name suggests, the capsule parachutes into an ocean or other large body of water. The properties of water cushion the spacecraft enough that there is no need for a braking rocket to slow the final descent as was the case with Russian and Chinese manned space capsules, which returned to Earth over land. The American practice came in part because American launch sites are on the coastline and launch primarily over water. Russian and Chinese launch sites are far inland and most early launch aborts are likely to descend on land.
The splashdown method of landing was utilized for Mercury, Gemini and Apollo (including Skylab, which used Apollo capsules). On one occasion a Soviet spacecraft, Soyuz 23, punched through the ice of a frozen lake (nearly killing the cosmonauts), but this was unintentional.
On early Mercury flights, a helicopter attached a cable to the capsule, lifted it from the water and delivered it to a nearby ship. This was changed after the sinking of Liberty Bell 7. All later Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules had a flotation collar (similar to a rubber life raft) attached to the spacecraft to increase their buoyancy. The spacecraft would then be brought alongside a ship and lifted onto deck by crane.
After the flotation collar is attached, a hatch on the spacecraft is usually opened. At that time, some astronauts decide to be hoisted aboard a helicopter for a ride to the recovery ship and some decided to stay with the spacecraft and be lifted aboard ship via crane. (Because of his overshoot aboard Aurora 7, and mindful of the fate of Liberty Bell 7, Scott Carpenter alone egressed through the nose of his capsule instead of through the hatch, waiting for recovery forces in his life raft.) All Gemini and Apollo flights (Apollos 7 to 17) used the former, while Mercury missions from Mercury 6 to Mercury 9, as well as all Skylab missions and Apollo-Soyuz used the latter, especially the Skylab flights as to preserve all medical data.
The new Crew Exploration Vehicle, which will replace the Space Shuttle (which lands on a modified aircraft-style runway), will be designed to be recovered on land using a combination of parachutes and airbags, although it is also designed to make a contingency splashdown (only for an in-flight abort) if needed. Although not new, NASA and the Air Force originally wanted to place a paraglider recovery system to allow for a controlled, precise landing on land on ski-like skids (a landing system used on X-15 rocket plane), most likely on the dry lakebeds at Edwards Air Force Base in California. This idea was first proposed for the Gemini spacecraft, but was dropped in favor of the traditional parachute system.
While the water the spacecraft landed on would cushion it to some degree, the impact could still be quite violent for the astronauts.
There are several disadvantages for splashdowns, foremost among them being the danger of the spacecraft flooding and sinking. This happened to Gus Grissom when the hatch of his Mercury-Redstone 4 capsule malfunctioned and blew prematurely. The capsule was lost and Grissom nearly drowned. Space capsules are also not very good boats and many astronauts got seasick.
Another problem associated with splashdown is that if the capsule comes down far from any recovery forces the crew are exposed to greater danger. As an example, Scott Carpenter in Mercury 7 overshot the assigned landing zone by 400 km. This was caused by a retroattitude misalignment caused by the spacecraft automatic guidance system. It took three hours for a recovery helicopter to reach his location. These recovery operation mishaps can be mitigated by placing several vessels on standby in several different locations, but this is quite an expensive option.
|Spacecraft||Landing Date||Coordinates||Recovery Ship||Miss Distance|
|Freedom 7||May 5, 1961||27°13.7'N 75°53'W||USS Lake Champlain CVS 39||5.6 km|
|Liberty Bell 7||July 21, 1961||27°32'N 75°44'W||USS Randolph CVS-15||9.3 km|
|Friendship 7||February 20, 1962||21°26'N 68°41'W|| USS Noa DD-841
(USS Randolph CVS-15**)
|Aurora 7||May 24, 1962||19°27'N 63°59'W|| USS Farragut DLG-6
(USS Intrepid CVS-11**)
|Sigma 7||October 3, 1962||32°06'N 174°28'W||USS Kearsarge CVS-33||7.4 km|
|Faith 7||May 16, 1963||27°20'N 176°26'W||USS Kearsarge CVS-33||8.1 km|
|Gemini 3||March 23, 1965||22°26'N 70°51'W||USS Intrepid CVS-11||111 km|
|Gemini 4||June 7, 1965||27°44'N 74°11'W||USS Wasp CVS-18||81 km|
|Gemini 5||August 29, 1965||29°44'N 69°45'W||USS Lake Champlain CVS 39||270 km|
|Gemini 7||December 18, 1965||25°25'N 70°07'W||USS Wasp CVS-18||12 km|
|Gemini 6A||December 16, 1965||23°35'N 67°50'W||USS Wasp CVS-18||13 km|
|Gemini 8||March 17, 1966||25°14'N 136°0'E|| USS Mason DD-852
(USS Boxer LPH 4**)
|Gemini 9A||June 6, 1966||27°52'N 75°0'W||USS Wasp CVS-18||0.7 km|
|Gemini 10||July 21, 1966||26°45'N 71°57'W||USS Guadalcanal LPH-7||6 km|
|Gemini 11||September 15, 1966||24°15'N 70°0'W||USS Guam LPH-9||5 km|
|Gemini 12||November 15, 1966||24°35'N 69°57'W||USS Wasp CVS-18||5 km|
|Apollo 1||March 7, 1967||Planned N of Puerto Rico||USS Essex CVS-9**||Planned|
|Apollo 7||October 22, 1968||27°32'N 64°04'W||USS Essex CVS-9||3 km|
|Apollo 8||December 27, 1968||8°7.5'N 165°1.2'W||USS Yorktown CVS-10||2 km|
|Apollo 9||March 13, 1969||23°15'N 67°56'W||USS Guadalcanal LPH-7||5 km|
|Apollo 10||May 26, 1969||15°2'S 164°39'W||USS Princeton CVS-37||2.4 km|
|Apollo 11||July 24, 1969||13°19'N 169°9'W||USS Hornet CVS-12||3.1 km|
|Apollo 12||November 24, 1969||15°47'S 165°9'W||USS Hornet CVS-12||3.7 km|
|Apollo 13||April 17, 1970||21°38'24'S 165°21'42'W||USS Iwo Jima LPH-2||1.9 km|
|Apollo 14||February 9, 1971||27°1'S 172°39'W||USS New Orleans LPH-11||1.1 km|
|Apollo 15||August 7, 1971||26°7'N 158°8'W||USS Okinawa LPH-3||1.9 km|
|Apollo 16||April 27, 1972||0°45'S 156°13'W||USS Ticonderoga CVS-14||5.6 km|
|Apollo 17||December 19, 1972||17°53'S 166°7'W||USS Ticonderoga CVS-14||1.9 km|
|Skylab 2||June 22, 1973||24°45'N 127°2'W||USS Ticonderoga CVS-14||9.6 km|
|Skylab 3||September 25, 1973||30°47'N 120°29'W||USS New Orleans LPH-11||8 km?|
|Skylab 4||February 8, 1974||31°18'N 119°48'W||USS New Orleans LPH-11||8 km?|
|ASTP Apollo||July 24, 1975||21°52'N 162°45'W||USS New Orleans LPH-11||7.3 km|
|Soyuz 23||October 16, 1976||Lake Tengiz||Helicopter Mi-8||Not intended to land in water|
Planned recovery ship **
|Spacecraft||Landing Date||Coordinates||Recovery Ship||Miss Distance|
|Jupiter AM-18||May 28, 1959||2,735 km SE Cape Canaveral||USS Kiowa ATF-72||? km|
|Mercury-Big Joe||September 9, 1959||2,407 km SE Cape Canaveral||USS Strong DD-758||925 km|
|Mercury-Little Joe 2||December 4, 1959||319 km SE Wallops Is, VA||USS Borie DD-704||? km|
|Mercury-Redstone 1A||December 19, 1960||378.2 km SE Cape Canaveral||USS Valley Forge CV-45||33 km|
|Mercury-Redstone 2||January 31, 1961||679 km SE Cape Canaveral||USS Donner LSD-20||111 km|
|Mercury-Atlas 2||February 21, 1961||2,305 km SE Cape Canaveral||USS Donner LSD-20||30? km|
|Mercury-Atlas 4||September 13, 1961||320 km E of Bermuda||USS Decatur DD 936||63 km|
|Mercury-Atlas 5||November 29, 1961||472 km SE of Bermuda||USS Stormes DD-780||48 km|
|Gemini 2||January 19, 1965||16°33.9'N 49°46.27'W||USS Lake Champlain CVS 39||38 km|
|Apollo 201||February 26, 1966||8°11'S 11°09'W||USS Boxer LPH 4||72 km|
|Apollo 202||August 25, 1966||16°07'N 168°54'E||USS Hornet CVS-12||370 km|
|Gemini 2-MOL||November 3, 1966||SE KSC near Ascension Is.||USS La Salle LPD-3||13 km|
|Apollo 4||November 9, 1967||30°06'N 172°32'W||USS Bennington CVS-20||16 km|
|Apollo 6||April 4, 1968||27°40'N 157°59'W||USS Okinawa LPH-3||80 km|
|Zond 5||September 21, 1968||32°38'S 65°33'E||Vasiliy Golovin|
|Zond 8||October 27, 1970||Indian Ocean|
|Ref.: #98 - update:20.01.08||Home|