CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s Orion capsule made an incredibly fast return from the moon Sunday, parachuting into the Pacific off 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 reentry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) before crashing west of Baja California near Guadalupe Island . A Navy vessel swooped in to retrieve the spacecraft and its silent occupants: three test dummies outfitted with vibration sensors and radiation monitors.
NASA hailed the near-perfect descent and splashdown.
“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 the next Orion flight around the moon, currently scheduled for 2024. Four astronauts will make the trip. This will be followed by a two-man lunar landing as early as 2025.
Astronauts last landed on the moon 50 years ago on Sunday. 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, 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 lunar 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 back on Earth,” announced Mission Control commentator Rob Navias.
While no one was on the $4 billion 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, Nelson noted, allowing for Orion’s safe return.
The ditching occurred more than 300 miles (482 kilometers) south of the original target area. Forecasts calling for rough seas and strong winds off the coast of Southern California prompted NASA to change its position.
Orion traveled 1.4 million miles (2.25 million kilometers) as it hurtled towards the moon and then went into a wide, diving orbit for nearly a week before returning home.
He has twice come 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 back great photos of not only the gray and pitted moon, but also the homeworld. 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. The space agency plans to announce the crew within the next six months. Orion, meanwhile, is expected to return to Kennedy by the end of this December for further inspections.
“This was a breathtaking end to an extraordinary and momentous journey for NASA’s Orion spacecraft,” Brown said in a statement from England.
The moon has never been hotter. 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.
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