NASA’s mission controllers breathed a sigh of relief after the Orion crew module successfully landed in the Pacific Ocean, exactly 50 years after humans last landed on the moon.
The small unmanned spacecraft entered the water at 17:41 after a nerve-wracking journey through Earth’s atmosphere, during which it faced temperatures of 2760C, half the outer surface of the Sun.
The flight, launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 16, is the first of the Artemis missions, which seek to return humans to the moon.
Orion undertook a 25-day test mission to make sure its systems were working properly before astronauts boarded. Its journey saw it orbit the Moon, before traveling further into space than any other human spacecraft.
Artemis II, scheduled for 2024, will return humans to orbit around the Moon, before landing in 2025.
Sunday’s splashdown occurred exactly 50 years after the last moonwalkers, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, landed on the lunar surface with Apollo 17.
“It seems appropriate to honor Apollo with the new legacy of the Artemis mission today,” said Cathy Koerner, NASA deputy administrator for exploration systems.
“This has been a phenomenal mission so far. If you were asking for a grade, I’d give it an A plus.”
Bill Nelson, NASA administrator, said: “I am overwhelmed. This is an extraordinary day. It is history because now we are returning to deep space with a new generation.
“Two main things had to happen, that heat shield had to work and it worked beautifully where it can jump out of the atmosphere and the parachutes had to work and they did that too.
“A new day has dawned, marking a new technology, a whole new breed of astronaut.”
Orion performed a complicated “re-entry jump,” which involved diving into the atmosphere and then back out again, like a flat rock skimming the pond, to help slow the spacecraft.
Mission control faced two nail-biting blackout periods during reentry in which they lost contact with the aircraft.
Once through the atmosphere, a complex network of 11 parachutes deployed to slow the spacecraft to 24,464 mph so it could fall gently into five-foot waves off the coast of Baja California, Mexico.
The textbook splashdown saw the capsule land perfectly upright, although the bags were ready to be inflated should it need to capsize.
A team of Navy divers from the USS Portland will have to wait two hours before recovering the capsule to ensure that Orion has completely cooled down and is not emitting toxic gases.
After recovery, postflight analysis teams will examine onboard sensors that have been measuring levels of radiation and heat to ensure astronauts are safe when they board.
Two mannequins named Helga and Zohar were strapped to the crew seats, one in a radiation vest and one without.
NASA has promised to place the first woman on the lunar surface in 2025, but the female body is extremely vulnerable to space radiation and the space agency hopes the protective vests will help.
Another mannequin, wearing the Orion Crew Survival System suit that future astronauts will wear, filled the commander’s seat.
NASA also revealed this weekend that it has placed hidden puzzles, or “Easter Eggs,” in the Orion crew capsule, and urged the public to locate the secret messages.
On the starboard side next to the pilot’s seat are the letters “CBAGF”, the musical notes of the song Fly Me to the Moon.
As a tribute to Orion’s international partnership with the European Space Agency, you can also find the area codes of each country that participated in the development and construction of the spacecraft’s European Service Module.
A morse code symbol for “Charlie” commemorates the life of Charlie Lundquist, the former deputy program director of Orion, who died in 2020.
The image of a cardinal is a tribute to Mark Geyer, the former Orion program manager, director of Johnson Space Center, and St Louis Cardinals fan, who died in 2021.
Finally, the binary code for the number 18 is found on the top of the pilot’s seat to celebrate the return of a human spacecraft to the Moon for the first time since Apollo 17.