Fifty years after astronauts last set foot on the moon, NASA’s unmanned Orion capsule crashed into the Pacific on Sunday at the end of a mission that should pave the way for a possible astronaut lunar landing by 2025.
The US space agency welcomed a near-perfect reentry of the capsule that crashed west of Mexico’s Baja California near Guadalupe Island. Though it carried no astronauts, the spacecraft contained three test dummies wired with vibration sensors and radiation monitors to guess how humans would fare.
“Crushed!” announced Mission Control commentator Rob Navias. “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 to Earth.
The return of Orion completes the maiden flight of Artemis I, NASA’s new moon program, designed as a sequel to the Apollo era. Its aim is to bring astronauts back to the surface of the moon this decade, and then create a base there from which to launch explorations of Mars.
On December 11, 1972, two astronauts aboard Apollo 17 – Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt – became the last of 12 moonwalkers. They had spent three days in the Taurus-Littrow valley during the longest lunar landing of the Apollo era.
NASA’s mission control complex in Houston said Sunday will be an extraordinary day. “I’m overwhelmed,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson told the Associated Press. “It’s historic because now we’re going back to deep space with a new generation.”
The success of the first Artemis flight paves the way for further lunar missions in rapid order. NASA plans an Artemis II flight around the moon and back with astronauts aboard perhaps by 2024, with the first human lunar landing to follow with Artemis III potentially the following year.
NASA scientists were particularly relieved by the success of the return of the Orion capsule given the troubled beginnings of Artemis. Delays and cost overruns plagued the schedule, with storms and fuel leaks forcing launches to be postponed through the summer and fall.
Orion took off on November 16 from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Over the course of its 25-day, $4 billion flight, Orion traveled 1.4 million miles (2.25 million kilometers) and came within 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the moon during a week-long orbit .
NASA was keen to test the reliability of its new heat shield which was deployed during the last 20 minutes of the flight as a means of coping with temperatures of nearly 2,760 degrees Celsius generated by re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. It did so at speeds of up to 24,500mph, with atmospheric friction being used to slow the capsule to around 325mph before the parachutes were engaged ensuring a decent ditching.
The mission architects also tested a maneuver known as a ‘jump entry’ – the first time it had been practiced with a capsule built for astronauts. The method involves the spacecraft bouncing off the atmosphere and then diving back down, both to reduce the pull of gravity and to allow for more precise targeting of the landing site.