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Astronauts practice for return to Earth in new capsule

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NASA astronauts took to the Gulf of Mexico to test new splashdown equipment. (KTRK)

In the Gulf of Mexico, NASA astronauts are working on best practices for getting back home safely and out of the spaceship which will one day take them further into space than humans ever have been before.

"This is a necessary step. We have to get people home, right?" asked veteran astronaut Suni Williams.

It may look like something you remember from NASA's Apollo era. The Orion capsule is designed to splash down in the ocean upon its return to Earth.

"Everyone -- Apollo, Mercury, Gemini -- every little one had a nugget that we pulled together for this," said Dustin Gohmert, NASA crew survival lead. "We know this crew can land anywhere in the world. Giving them these capabilities means they can survive."

Orion has not flown yet with humans on board. It's an all new spacecraft, part of NASA's Space Launch System. NASA wants to make every effort to ensure astronauts can get out of it as quickly and safely as possible.

On Thursday, four astronauts crawled out both the top and side hatches and then either jumped or waded to rescue rafts stationed nearby. One of the tests required them to escape in under three minutes.

It may look deceivingly simple, but Williams says you have to imagine doing so after spending considerable time in space, where the lack of gravity affects your body. Muscle loss combined with the sudden force of gravity an astronaut would feel upon a return would make the exit more difficult.

Williams said these tests will help minimize troubles.

"Would we really want somebody to do this after they've been in space for 20 days or so?" she asked.

The Orion spacecraft is expected to one day take astronauts on longer-duration missions -- possibly to the moon, an asteroid or even Mars.

NASA doesn't anticipate launching humans in the capsule until sometime in 2019.

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