NASA’s uncrewed Orion capsule passed its final exam today, surviving a fiery atmospheric re-entry and crashing into the Pacific Ocean following a test flight around the moon.
The 25.5-day Artemis 1 mission set the stage for future manned lunar voyages, 50 years after the last Apollo lunar mission.
“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,” said NASA spokesman Rob Navias as Orion settled in the waters off the coast of the Baja California at 9:40am PT.
Orion’s odyssey began in mid-November with the first-ever launch of NASA’s giant Space Launch System rocket, and it charted a path that approached within 80 miles of the lunar surface and extended up to 40,000 miles beyond the moon. Orion has traveled a total of 1.4 million miles.
On the way back to Earth, cameras mounted on the spacecraft’s solar panel wings sent back spectacular images of our planet that loom large in Orion’s metaphorical windshield.
Mission leaders said Orion’s descent was ranked among the toughest tests of the mission. As the spacecraft hit the upper atmosphere at nearly 25,000 mph, Orion’s heat shield had to withstand temperatures of around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. After that test fire, the parachutes slowed the descent even further, allowing the spacecraft to hit the ocean at about 20 mph.
Navias said it was a “textbook entry”.
A recovery team, including Navy personnel aboard the USS Portland, an amphibious transport ship, went out to collect the capsule and return it to shore.
In the weeks and months ahead, NASA’s Orion team will evaluate data collected during the flight. Three mannequins were tethered to the capsule’s seats, wired with sensors to record temperature levels, radiation exposure and flight stresses.
These readings will help mission leaders prepare for the Artemis 2 mission, which aims to send astronauts around the moon in 2024-2025. That flight, in turn, is intended to pave the way for the first manned lunar landing in more than half a century, during an Artemis 3 mission scheduled for no earlier than 2025.
“This is the program to go back to the moon, to learn to live, to invent, to create, to explore further,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
The Artemis 1 finale came 50 years after Apollo 17 landed on the moon in the Taurus-Littrow Valley during the final lunar mission of the Apollo program. “A new day has dawned,” said Nelson, “and the Artemis generation is taking us there.”