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NASA, US Navy practice space-capsule recovery

NORFOLK, Virginia -- During the glory days of the U.S. space program in the 1960s and '70s, astronauts returning to Earth splashed down at sea in their capsules and were picked up by the Navy in a triumphant moment that made for stirring TV. Now, NASA and the Navy are training again for the first such recovery in a generation.

On Thursday, they completed several days of tests, practicing the retrieval of an unmanned mock-up of the Orion capsule that the U.S. hopes to send someday to an asteroid and Mars.

Navy divers and the crew of the USS Arlington carried out the exercise in the calm waters of the Elizabeth River at a Naval Station Norfolk pier.

In a statement, Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of Navy's U.S. Fleet Forces Command, welcomed the chance to take part again in recovering NASA astronauts “just as we did nearly a half-century ago in support of America's quest to put a man on the moon.”

From 1961 to 1975, teams of Navy ships tracked and recovered Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft after they re-entered Earth's atmosphere and splashed down.

Typically, frogmen would swim up to the pitching, bobbing spacecraft and help the astronauts out. Then helicopters would hoist the men and their capsule and fly them to a waiting aircraft carrier. In a few instances, the astronauts would remain inside the capsule while a crane lifted it aboard a ship.

After Apollo ended, U.S. astronauts began flying the space shuttle, which returns to Earth on a landing strip like an airplane. With the end of that program in 2011, astronauts began hitching rides aboard Russia's Soyuz capsule, which parachutes to a landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

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In this image provided by the U.S. Navy, sailors assigned to the amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington practice recovering an Orion capsule on Tuesday, Aug. 13 into the well deck of the USS Arlington as part of NASA's first key Orion stationary recovery test at Naval Station Norfolk. (AP)

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