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U.S. military, NASA relationship on display with Artemis 1 mission

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U.S. Space Command demonstrated the more than 50-year partnership between the Department of Defense and NASA through its support to the recovery and retrieval of the Artemis 1 Orion capsule Dec. 11.

Artemis 1 launched into space on November 16, aboard NASA’s Space Launch Systems and re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on Dec. 11, following a 26-day, 1.4-million-mile mission.

As important as the validation that Orion could return safely to earth, is the confirmation that recovery efforts belonging to multiple government organizations are ready to respond. To properly unify these elements, DoD designated the United States Space Command as the manager of human space flight support.

“From providing rescue and recovery forces, to Space Domain Awareness, U.S. Space Command, with Air Forces Space and the U.S. Navy, is honored to support humankind’s continued exploration of space,” the commander of U.S. Space Command, U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, said upon Orion’s return.

During Orion’s journey around the moon, U.S. Space Force Guardians assigned to U.S. Space Command’s service component, U.S. Space Force’s Space Operations Command, maintained Space Domain Awareness, and testing cislunar tracking tactics, techniques, and procedures for future crewed missions.

“This data is critical to satellite operators all over the world in achieving mission success as the space domain becomes more contested and congested,” said Col Marc A. Brock, Space Delta 2 commander. “Timely and accurate xGEO space object detection and tracking in conjunction with our traditional SDA operations closer to Earth will be essential to our support for human space flight safety from launch to lunar landing and return, to facilitate human exploration and to promote the peaceful and responsible use of space.”

And as Orion returned back to earth, Air Forces Space (First Air Force), Detachment 3, the USSPACECOM-appointed lead of Human Space Flight Support, oversaw the extensive training to ensure the proper integration of joint forces to retrieve the capsule, and prepare for future crew rescue and recovery.

U.S. Navy Divers from the Navy Expeditionary Combat Force’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Expeditionary Support Unit 1 retrieved the capsule, which was loaded on to the USS Portland, an amphibious transport dock.

“These divers undergo training that prepares them to conduct rescue and recovery operations of NASA astronauts and equipment,” said Lt. Col. Richard Bolton, Detachment 3 commander. “There are many challenges unique to space travel and the team has done a phenomenal job doing the necessary preparations to support NASA and get the job done safely and efficiently.”

The Portland is outfitted with medical facilities, embarked helicopters postured to provide medical evacuation or imagery collection, and extensive communications suites to enable the multi-agency Landing and Recovery Team to coordinate with the Flight Control Team in Texas and NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems team at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“I’m extremely proud of our team’s ability to execute a historic moment in history by successfully recovering the Orion capsule,” said Capt. John Ryan, commanding officer of Portland. “Each organization that participated in this mission underwent an extensive amount of training, and our ability to work together as a unit demonstrates our adaptability and effectiveness as an amphibious platform.”

Though Artemis I was an uncrewed mission, its recovery presented an important training opportunity for the supporting DoD units, because when future Orion capsules splash down, it will have astronauts inside.

NASA Landing and Recovery Director Melissa Jones expressed her appreciation to the DoD partnership, stating, “For years our teams have trained together for this and could not be happier with how well the recovery mission was executed.”

With a successful Artemis I mission, NASA will continue to work toward follow-on missions with the goal of putting humans on the moon again for the first time since NASA’s Apollo 17 mission in 1972.  Just as the U.S. Navy’s USS Ticonderoga recovered the Apollo 17 astronauts, the Department of Defense will continue to play a vital a vital role in humanity’s exploration of space. USSPACECOM is proud to partner with NASA on activities that advance our respective military and civil space missions and support the nation’s space endeavors.

Space Operations Command and Expeditionary Strike Group Three contributed to this report. 

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