Splashdowns: Why Change a Good Thing?

I’ve recently begun the task of revisiting and reorganizing my master’s thesis in the hope of turning it into a book. The paper examines the push by NASA to incorporate a pilot-controlled land landing system into its second- and third-generation Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. Once I started getting into the research surrounding the land landing programs, I found the rationale behind the shift to be much more justified than at first glance, and certainly more than just a bunch of complaints from displeased astronauts. (The image to the left depicts the Apollo 10 command module just prior to splashdown after its lunar orbital flight. May 1969.)

NASA’s first manned space program, project Mercury, was a crash program. It was a quick and dirty solution to a sudden need for America to prove its technological dominance by beating the Soviets into orbit. (Mercury did not actually include crashes in the program, accidents testing new rockets aside.) The method was crude. A manned capsule replaced the warhead in an intercontinental ballistic missile, which traced out a ballistic flight path ending with a splashdown in the ocean.

The choice to use a splashdown method seemed natural. As Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronaut Gus Grissom wrote in his 1966 memoirs, it was logical that the fastest and simplest way to return from space was to have a returning spacecraft land at sea. Without a great expanse of suitable landing space available on land, the oceans presented a large open target. Landing in the water also added a natural cushion during the final landing, greatly simplifying the design of the spacecraft. The US Naval forces were capable of deploying ships, planes, and men over both oceans; an astronaut could easily be found and recovered. The Mercury project planners had assumed from the beginning that the Navy would be available to assist in locating and recovering the spacecraft and the astronaut. NASA had taken for granted that the military resources of the US would be at its disposal. The space race was, after all, an incarnation of the Cold War. In short, splashdowns used readily available resources in the simplest way possible.

But this is a bit of a misnomer. The method was certainly simple, particularly from the perspective of the engineers responsible for enabling the safe return of the astronaut. Slowing a capsule by a parachute before it hits the yielding surface of the ocean was certainly straightforward. Nevertheless, there were a number of potential problems for the recovery crews and real dangers facing the astronauts during splashdown. Not to mention that coordinating the forces required to recover the astronaut and his spacecraft was more complicated than simply being in the right place at the right time.

The recovery phase of a mission is broken into three stages. The first is location. The prime method of location was simply visual. With the recovery ships waiting in the appropriate zones, they were likely to see the capsule during its descent. To facilitate visual location, Dye was also leaked from the spacecraft after landing to signal its position to aircraft in the area. In an effort to make the recovery operation as fast and smooth as possible, Navy forces had to be on hand in the spacecraft’s landing zone at the time of splashdown. As such, NASA had to know with great precision where the spacecraft was likely to land, in order to have forces on standby. This was a fairly simple task for the engineers. They were able to predict the landing zone for the spacecraft based on pre-planned deorbit manoeuvres of the flight.

But what if the flight didn’t go perfectly as planned and the capsule came down elsewhere? Weather could require a change in splashdown point. The astronauts on board the spacecraft could, accidentally or on purpose, bring their spacecraft down ahead of or behind schedule. This had the potential to be rather problematic. To protect the astronauts from deviations in the calculated landing zone, NASA specified three types of recovery zones: primary, secondary, and contingency zones. Primary and secondary zones accounted for slight deviations in the flight plan, while contingency zones accounted for drastic changes or emergency aborts in a mission. In the event that the capsule splashed down outside of all primary and secondary recovery zones, a tracking beacon in the spacecraft would signal to nearby ships its location.

Once the capsule had splashed down, would it float? How long could the astronaut stay inside before he would have to leave? Would he need help? If he entered the water, would he be able to float in his bulky space suit? Thus the second stage of recovery was on-the-spot assistance. Navy SEALS from rescue helicopters or swimmers from Air Force planes would jump into the water to assist the astronaut as well as attach a flotation collar (a sort of fitted raft) around the base of the capsule to increase its stability. (The image to the left shows David Scott and Neil Armstrong after their Gemini 8 mission. The astronauts wait for the recovery ship with three ‘frogmen’. March 1966.)

The final stage was retrieval. The spacecraft, the valuable data it contained, as well as the astronaut needed to be returned safely to NASA. As such, the capsule was be hooked by the helicopter and hoisted out of the water. The astronaut, if had already left the spacecraft, was also pulled from the water by the helicopter. The recovery phase, as well as the mission on the whole, was complete when the astronaut and his capsule were delivered to the prime recovery carrier.

The method, while seemingly straightforward, requires substantial resources that increase in tandem with the complexity of the mission. Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom both flew suborbital mission in the Mercury program. Both flights lasted just over fifteen minutes, requiring recovery forces only in the Atlantic. They could only go so far in such a short time; nevertheless the recovery effort utilized 10 and 8 ships respectively.

Once NASA began orbital flights, the number of potential landing areas increased. For John Glenn’s orbital flight, 23 ships were stationed in various recovery zones in the Atlantic alone with a 24th in the Pacific. Wally Schirra’s orbital flight on Sigma 7 had the greatest number of recovery forces on hand during the entire space race era: 21 ships stationed in the Atlantic and another 6 in the Pacific.

The resources required for recovery lessened as the space program progressed. NASA was able to build on experience and use its Navy resources more sparingly. While the first Gemini mission used a large recovery force of 20 ships (all of which were in the Atlantic), missions towards the end of the program were averaging 10 ships per mission. By the end of the Apollo program, only a fraction of the Mercury-era ships were on hand for each splashdown. More than one mission used as few as four ships for the recovery operations.

Even with NASA’s gradually decreasing reliance on the Navy, the cost of recovering the astronaut following splashdown was far too high for the method to become routine. The recovery ships did not move into their designated recovery zones prior to the spacecraft’s splashdown. They were on hand prior to its launch. In the days preceding the Apollo 1 launch, 9 ships were in place (6 in the Atlantic, 3 in the Pacific). The mission never flew – a fire on the launch pad claimed the lives of the crew – but the forces were in place. The same applied to scrubbed launches – a last minute cancellation on launch day. The recovery crews had to be ready in every event in case the mission was launched.

Add to the fleet on hand throughout all NASA mission the training needed to perfect a fast and seamless recovery operation. Even when there was no mission, the ships and their crews were training. For all intents and purposes, they were still at NASA’s disposal at any time during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.

The resources diverted from national defence and security to the recovery of astronauts was not an optimal use of the Navy, particularly during the Cold War. It was impractical for NASA to monopolize such a large portion of the country’s defence force. In the event of the Cold War escalated into a hot war, the space program would be sunk (quite literally) and the space race lost without the Navy to assist in the return of the astronauts.

The manpower and resources required for splashdowns account for only a portion of the problems associated with the method. The engineering ease of splashdowns was done at the cost of valuable data in light of the corrosive effects of salt water. Splashdowns also posed serious potential hazards to human life. Gus Grissom experienced the very real dangers associated with splashdowns in the final stages of his Mercury suborbital flight. Following splashdown, the hatch on his Liberty Bell 7 opened prematurely forcing Grissom to swim out into the ocean to escape the rapidly flooding spacecraft. The spacecraft sunk and was lost (recovered in 1999), leaving Grissom to fight against a flooding spacesuit and rough waters until the recue helicopter was able to lift him from the water. Once aboard the recovery carrier, an officer presented Grissom with his lost helmet that had been found floating inches away from a ten-foot shark.

Splashdowns also placed the astronaut in a less-than-ideal passive role.  As popular retellings of the early space program are wont to dramatize, the hotshot test-pilots-turned-astronauts had no intention of being mere occupants in the spacecraft. They wanted to fly it, particularly in the landing stage. It was far from dignified for these men to be hauled out of the ocean like wet dogs when they were more than capable of landing an airborne vehicle.

A land landing method could, in theory, simplify the whole return and recovery phase of the mission. The astronauts could pilot the spacecraft to a controlled landing on a designated runway. Certainly emergency personnel would be on the scene, but they could be called prior to landing rather than waiting on hand for the duration of the mission. As for the recovery, the astronauts could open the hatch themselves and climb out, negating the need for the assistance of a team of men. (The image to the right shows Gordon Cooper being hauled into the recovery helicopter following the Gemini 5 mission. August, 1965.)

One of the central champions for land landing in the Gemini was chief of the Gemini Program Office James Chamberlin who argued that the objections to water landings were sufficiently fundamental to preclude it being preferred over land landings. There was no reason not to make the switch to a land landing system. And NASA did embark on such a project, spending $165 million on a system to convert the Gemini spacecraft into a fully pilotable glider that the astronaut could fly down to a landing on a runway. As can be inferred from the previous figures I’ve cited on the recovery effort during the Gemini and Apollo program, the attempt was unsuccessful. It is, nevertheless, a fascinating story that has secured a place in the footnotes of spaceflight history. It will remain there for the time being.  I will doubtless devote time to it in future writings.

Suggested Reading/Selected Sources:

1. Blair, Don. Splashdown! NASA and the Navy: Turner Publishing Company (KY). 2004.

2. Carpenter, M.S, Cooper, L.G., Glenn, J.H., Grissom, V.I., Schirra, W.M., Shepard, A.B., Slayton, D.K. We seven: By the astronauts themselves: Simon and Schuster. 1962.

3. Grimwood, James M. and Hacker, Barton C. with Vorzimmer, Peter J. Project Gemini: Technology and Operations, NASA Historical Series. Washington: NASA. 1969.

4. Grimwood, James. Project Mercury: A Chronology. Washington: NASA. 1963.

5. Grissom, Virgil I. Gemini: A Personal Account of Man’s Venture into Space. Toronto: The Macmillan Company. 1969.

6. Hacker and Grimwood. On the Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini. Washington: NASA. 1977.

7. Hacker, Barton C. and Grimwood, James M. On the Shoulders of Titans. Scientific and Technical Operations Division, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington. 1977.

8. Swenson, LS. This New Ocean: a History of Project Mercury. Washington: NASA. 1998.

9. Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Picador, New York. 1979.


23 thoughts on “Splashdowns: Why Change a Good Thing?

  1. To facilitate visual location, Dye was also leaked form the spacecraft after landing to signal its position to aircraft in the area.

    Small typo.

    form -> from

  2. Hi there, and thanks for a very interesting blog, and a enlightening post about the splash down “problem”. I’ve been studying space and particular the american space program for a long time now, but it never occurred to me just how resourceful and demanding a splashdown was.
    But, then again, its the space program. What seems (to a bystander) to be a simple task almost certainly isn’t, when it comes to conquering The Final Frontier.
    I’ll be looking forward to reeding your book about this subject, so keep up the good work!

    Best Regards
    Niel A. Hansen, Denmark

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