HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) – When the Orion space capsule returns to earth, it will splash down in the Pacific Ocean where Navy personnel will soon retrieve it and return it to soil.

To make sure the capsule would withstand the stress a water landing can place on it, NASA conducted a series of tests over the past 10 years.

Nestled at the end of the NASA Langley Landing and Impact Research Facility, commonly called the gantry – the one million gallon basin is designed to test water landings.

The Orion Water Testing Project Manager, Bryan Russ, says that the impact on the Pacific Ocean is the most demanding point during the entire mission. Variables such as wind, wave height, parachute deployment and other factors can impact if a landing is smooth or problematic.

To account for all of these scenarios, engineers run thousands of models that simulate what would happen. Models are great, but not every variable can always be accounted for 100% in a model, compared to the real world. That’s where the hydro-impact basin comes in!

The engineers pick a few scenarios and then simulate them in real life – to account for unknown variables. 

Data is then collected using numerous sensors on the test vehicle to see how it compares to the models. That data is then analyzed and if needed, the models are updated to account for what is seen.

The basin has been supporting the Orion project for more than a decade and will continue to support future space flight.

While testing on Orion has wrapped up, Bryan tells me the basin could be used in the future for testing commercial crew capsules from SpaceX, Boeing, or other NASA partners.