NASA’s Orion capsule made an incredibly fast return from the Moon on Sunday, parachuting into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico to wrap up a test flight that should pave the way for astronauts on their next lunar flyby.
The incoming capsule impacted the atmosphere at Mach 32, or 32 times the speed of sound, and endured re-entry temperatures of 2,760 degrees Celsius before crashing west of Baja California near Guadalupe Island.
A US Navy vessel swooped in to recover the spacecraft and its silent occupants: three test dummies outfitted with vibration sensors and radiation monitors.
NASA hailed the near-perfect descent and splashdown, while congratulations came from Washington DC.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson from Mission Control in Houston. “This is an extraordinary day… It is historic because we are now returning to space – deep space – with a new generation.”
The space agency needed a successful splashdown to stay on track for Orion’s next flight around the Moon, scheduled for 2024 with four astronauts to be revealed early next year.
This would be followed by a two-person moon landing as early as 2025, and ultimately a sustainable lunar base. The long-term plan would be to launch an expedition to Mars by the end of the 2030s.
50 years since Apollo 17
Astronauts last landed on the moon 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 sojourn of the Apollo era.
They were the last of 12 moonwalkers.
Orion was the first capsule to visit the Moon since then, launching on NASA’s new mega lunar rocket from the Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 16. It was the maiden flight of NASA’s new Artemis Moon program, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister.
“From Tranquility Base at Taurus-Littrow to the calm waters of the Pacific, the latest chapter in NASA’s journey to the moon comes to a close. Orion returns to Earth,” announced Mission Control commentator Rob Navias.
While no one was on the $4 billion (€XX) test flight, NASA managers were excited to get the dress rehearsal through, especially after so many years of flight delays and tight budgets. Fuel spills and hurricanes conspired for further postponements in late summer and into the fall.
In a throwback to Apollo, NASA threw a splashdown party at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Sunday, with employees and their families gathering to watch Orion’s homecoming broadcast. Next door, the visitor center held a party for the public.
Returning Orion intact after the 25-day flight was NASA’s main goal. With a return speed of 25,000 mph (40,000 km/h) – considerably faster than arriving from low Earth orbit – the capsule used a new advanced heat shield never before tested in spaceflight. To reduce gravity or G-loads, it dived into the atmosphere and popped out briefly, also helping pinpoint the crash area.
All of this played out spectacularly, officials noted, allowing for Orion’s safe return.
First Artemis crew in 2023
“I don’t think any of us could have imagined such a successful mission,” said mission manager Mike Sarafin.
Further inspections will be conducted once Orion returns to Kennedy later this month.
If the capsule checks find nothing wrong, NASA will announce the first lunar crew in early 2023, choosing from the 42 active US astronauts stationed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“People are anxious, we know that,” Johnson director Vanessa Wyche told reporters. Nelson added, “The American people, just like (with) the original seven astronauts in Mercury’s day, will want to know about these astronauts.”
The capsule crashed more than 300 miles (482 km) south of the original target area. Forecasts calling for rough seas and strong winds off the southern California coast prompted NASA to change its position.
Orion logged 2.25 million km as it approached the moon and then entered a wide, diving orbit for nearly a week before returning home.
It has twice come within 130 km of the Moon. At its furthest point, the capsule was more than 430,000 km from Earth.
Orion streamed great photos of not only the gray, pockmarked moon, but the home planet as well. As a farewell shot, the capsule revealed a crescent Earth – Earthrise – which left the mission team speechless.
Astronomer Daniel Brown of Nottingham Trent University said the many flight results illustrate NASA’s ability to put astronauts on the next Artemis lunar launch.
“This was a breathtaking end to an extraordinary and momentous journey for NASA’s Orion spacecraft,” Brown said in a statement from England.
Trying to reach the Moon again is high on the agenda, not only for NASA but also for private companies. A few hours before Sunday, a spacecraft flew towards the moon from Cape Canaveral. The lunar lander belongs to ispace, a Tokyo company intent on developing an economy up there. Two US companies, meanwhile, will launch lunar landers early next year.