NASA’s moon odyssey ends successfully with Orion splashdown

A view of the Orion capsule (left, foreground) shows Earth in its viewfinder. (NASA/ESA photo)

NASA’s unmanned Orion capsule passed its final exam today, surviving a fiery atmospheric re-entry and crashing into the Pacific Ocean at the end of a test flight around the moon.

The 25.5-day Artemis 1 mission set the stage for future lunar journeys with astronauts on board, 50 years after the last Apollo lunar mission.

“From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the final chapter of NASA’s journey to the moon is coming to an end,” NASA spokesman Rob Navias said as Orion was settling in the waters off Baja California at 9 a.m. :40 Pacific hours. “Orion, back on Earth.”

Orion’s odyssey began in mid-November with the first-ever launch of NASA’s Space Launch System giant rocket, and charted a course that approached 80 miles from the lunar surface and extended up to 40,000 miles beyond the moon. Orion traveled 1.4 million miles in all.

On the way back to Earth, cameras mounted on the wings of the spacecraft’s solar panels returned spectacular images of our planet appearing larger in Orion’s metaphorical windshield. Once the spacecraft jettisoned its European-built service module, a set of thrusters built at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facilities in Redmond, Wash., controlled the capsule’s orientation for atmospheric re-entry.

Mission officials said Orion’s descent ranked among the mission’s most severe tests. As the spacecraft reached the upper atmosphere at nearly 25,000 mph, Orion’s heat shield had to withstand temperatures of around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. After this test-by-fire, the parachutes further slowed the descent, allowing the spacecraft to touch down in the ocean at around 20 mph.

Navias said it was a “textbook entry”.

A recovery team – including Navy personnel aboard the amphibious transport dock USS Portland – went out to recover the capsule and bring it back to shore.

Over the coming weeks and months, NASA’s Orion team will evaluate the data collected during the flight. Three mannequins were strapped to the capsule’s seats, wired with sensors to record temperature levels, radiation exposure and the stresses of the flight.

NASA also tested an Alexa-style voice and video assistant, named Callisto, which was installed in the capsule as part of an experiment orchestrated by Lockheed Martin, Amazon and Cisco.

The results of Artemis 1 will help mission managers prepare for the Artemis 2 mission, which aims to send astronauts around the moon by 2024. This flight, in turn, is supposed to pave the way for the first landing crewed lunar for more than half a century, during an Artemis 3 mission scheduled for 2025 at the earliest.

“It’s the program to return to the moon, to learn to live, to invent, to create, in order to explore beyond,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

The Artemis 1 finale came 50 years to the day after Apollo 17 landed on the moon in the Taurus-Littrow Valley on the last lunar mission of the Apollo program. “A new day has dawned,” Nelson said, “and the Artemis generation is taking us there.”

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