NASA’s Orion capsule returned from the moon surprisingly fast on Sunday and parachuted into the Pacific off Mexico to complete a test flight that should pave the way for astronauts on the next lunar transit.
The incoming capsule crashed into the atmosphere at Mach 32, or 32 times the speed of sound, and withstood reentry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) before splashing out west of Baja California near Guadalupe Island. A Navy ship quickly moved to rescue the spacecraft and its silent passengers – three test dummies equipped with vibration sensors and radiation monitors.
NASA hailed the descent and splashing as spectacular and near-perfect.
“I’m overwhelmed,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told Mission Control in Houston. “This is an extraordinary day… It’s historical because now we’re going back to space — deep space — with a new generation.”
The space agency needed a successful jump to stay on track for the next Orion flyby around the Moon, currently targeted for 2024. Four astronauts will make the journey. This will be followed by a two-man Moon landing as early as 2025.
Astronauts last set foot on the moon on Sunday, 50 years ago. After landing on December 11, 1972, Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent three days exploring the Taurus-Littrow valley, the longest stay of the Apollo era. They were the last of 12 people to walk on the moon.
Orion was the first capsule to visit the moon since then, launched on November 16 from the Kennedy Space Center by NASA’s new mega-moon rocket. This was the first flight of NASA’s new Artemis lunar program, named after Apollo’s mythological twin brother.
“From the Splashdown! Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow and the calm waters of the Pacific, the final chapter of NASA’s journey to the moon is coming to an end. Orion has returned to Earth,” said Mission Control commentator Rob Navias.
While no one made the $4 billion test flight, NASA executives were excited to do the dress rehearsal, especially after all these years of flight delays and exploding budgets. Fuel leaks and hurricanes collaborated for additional delays in late summer and fall.
In an Apollo throwback, NASA held a party at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Sunday, where employees and their families gathered to watch a broadcast of Orion’s return home. The adjacent visitor center threw a party for the public.
Getting Orion back intact after 25 days of flight was NASA’s top goal. With a spin speed of 25,000 mph (40,000 kph) – much faster than coming from low Earth orbit – the capsule used a new, advanced heat shield that had never been tested in spaceflight. It plunged into the atmosphere and briefly bounced out to reduce gravity or G-charges, further helping to pinpoint the bouncing area.
Nelson realized that all of this had turned out magnificently, ensuring Orion’s safe return.
The splashing occurred 300 miles (482 kilometers) south of the original target area. Forecasts calling for choppy seas and high winds off the Southern California coast have caused NASA to change location.
Orion recorded 1.4 million miles (2.25 million kilometers) as it approached the moon, and then entered a wide, fast orbit for about a week before heading home.
Twice it came within 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the moon. At its furthest point, the capsule was more than 268,000 miles (430,000 kilometers) from Earth.
Orion sent stunning photos of not only the gray, dimpled moon, but also the home planet. As a breakaway photo, the capsule revealed a crescent-shaped Earth (Earthrise), which left the mission team speechless.
The moon has never been this hot. Just hours before Sunday, a spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral towards the moon. The lunar lander is owned by ispace, a Tokyo company that aims to develop an economy there. Meanwhile, two US companies will land on the Moon early next year.
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