Historic moon mission ends with ‘perfect splashdown’ of 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 is back on Earth.

The uncrewed spacecraft had a “perfect splashdown” Sunday in the Pacific Ocean off San Diego at 12:40 a.m. ET, officials said. 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 mega-rocket and space capsule for missions to the moon.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Sunday was a “decisive day” that “marks new technology, a whole new breed of astronauts” and “a vision for the future”.

Orion spacecraft approaches Earth (NASA via AP/AP)

“It’s an amazing day,” Nelson said. “It’s historic because we are now returning to space, to deep space, with a new generation.”

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

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

Throughout its week-long mission, the Orion capsule returned stunning photos and videos of the lunar surface, as well as spectacular “selfies” showing the spacecraft and the moon with Earth visible in the background.

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

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

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

NASA touted the Artemis I test flight as laying the groundwork for American astronauts to return to the Moon. It is also a key first step for space exploration to Mars.

Artemis I was designed to test the Orion capsule and the massive 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 set of mannequins equipped with various sensors are mounted 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, which is designed to protect the spacecraft and its passengers from scorching conditions as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.

Orion sped through the atmosphere at a blistering 25,000 mph, exposing the heat shield to temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, agency officials said.

In addition to completing the maiden flight of the SLS rocket and the 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 other spacecraft designed to carry astronauts. The new distance record was set on November 28 when the Orion spacecraft was approximately 270,000 miles from Earth. The furthest crewed flight title had been held by the Apollo 13 mission, which reached nearly 250,000 miles from Earth in 1970.

The Artemis I mission launched into orbit Nov. 16 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The roughly $4.1 billion mission had been repeatedly delayed due to a faulty sensor and hydrogen leaks and because of two hurricanes that hit Florida – Ian in late September and Nicole in early November.

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

This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com

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