The historic lunar mission ends with the “perfect shot” of the Orion capsule in the Pacific

After a 26-day mission that took it on a historic journey around the moon, NASA’s next-generation Orion capsule has returned to Earth.

The unmanned spacecraft had a “perfect splash” Sunday in the Pacific Ocean off San Diego at 12:40 p.m. ET, according to officials. The capsule’s return marked the end of NASA’s Artemis I test flight, the crucial first launch and shipment of the agency’s new megarocket and space capsule for missions to the moon.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Sunday was a “defining day” that “marks new technology, an entirely new breed of astronaut” and “a vision for the future.”

Orion probe approaches Earth (NASA via AP/AP)

“This is an extraordinary day,” said Nelson. “It’s historic because now we’re going back to space, deep space, with a new generation.”

Fifty years ago, the astronauts on the final mission of NASA’s Apollo program, Apollo 17, became the last humans to walk on the moon.

“A new day has dawned and the Artemis generation is taking us there,” said Nelson.

During its weeks-long mission, the Orion capsule transmitted breathtaking photos and videos of the lunar surface, along with dramatic “selfies” showing the spacecraft and the moon with Earth visible in the background.

On day 20 of the Artemis I mission, Orion captured the Earth rising behind the Moon after its return flyby on Dec. 5, 2022. (NASA)

On day 20 of the Artemis I mission, Orion captured the Earth rising behind the Moon after its return flyby on Dec. 5, 2022. (NASA)

As it circled the moon, the capsule also flew past several Apollo landing sites, including those where the Apollo 12 and Apollo 14 astronauts landed.

NASA advertised the Artemis I test flight as the basis for returning US astronauts to the moon. It’s also a critical first step in space exploration on Mars.

Artemis I was designed to test the Orion capsule and the huge Space Launch System rocket that carries it into orbit. The 322-foot-tall booster is more powerful than the retired Saturn V rockets NASA used to send astronauts to the moon more than 50 years ago during its iconic Apollo program.

No humans were on board for the Artemis I mission, but future test flights, including an Artemis II expedition tentatively scheduled for 2024, will have astronaut passengers.

This time, a series of dummies equipped with various sensors traveled in the Orion capsule to collect data on radiation exposure and other deep space travel conditions.

The Artemis I flight also provided NASA with an important opportunity to test Orion’s heat shield, designed to protect the spacecraft and its passengers from scorching conditions as it reenters Earth’s atmosphere.

Orion traveled through the atmosphere at a breakneck speed of 25,000 mph, exposing its heat shield to temperatures as high as 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, agency officials said.

In addition to completing the maiden flight of the SLS rocket and Orion capsule, the Artemis I mission achieved another milestone for NASA: The capsule’s wide orbit around the moon helped it travel farther than any previous vehicle spacecraft designed to carry astronauts. The new distance record was set on Nov. 28, when the Orion spacecraft was approximately 270,000 miles from Earth. The farthest manned flight title had been held by the Apollo 13 mission, which reached nearly 250,000 miles from Earth in 1970.

The Artemis I mission was launched into orbit on November 16 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The approximately $4.1 billion mission was delayed multiple times to deal with a faulty sensor and hydrogen fuel leaks and due to two hurricanes that hit Florida: Ian in late September and Nicole in early November .

NASA plans two more Artemis test flights before launching regular missions to the moon to establish a lunar base camp. Artemis II will launch four astronauts in the Orion spacecraft on an expedition around the moon. A subsequent Artemis III mission will bring the first woman and first black person to land on the lunar surface, according to NASA, which has not yet announced launch dates or who will make up the crews.

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