Fifty years to the day after astronauts last walked on the Moon, NASA’s uncrewed Orion capsule crashed in the Pacific on Sunday at the end of a mission that should pave the way for an eventual landing of astronauts by 2025.
The American space agency was delighted with an almost perfect re-entry of the capsule which crashed west of Baja California in Mexico, near the island of Guadalupe. Although it carried no astronauts, the spacecraft contained three test dummies wired with vibration sensors and radiation monitors to guess how humans would have behaved.
“Ditching!” announced Mission Control commentator Rob Navias. “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. Orion back on Earth.
Orion’s return completes the first flight of Artemis I, NASA’s new moon program that was designed to follow on from the Apollo era. Its goal is to bring astronauts back to the surface of the moon this decade and then create a base there from which to launch Mars explorations.
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 moon landing of the Apollo era.
NASA’s Mission Control Complex in Houston declared Sunday an extraordinary day. “I’m overwhelmed,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press. “It’s historic because we are now returning to deep space with a new generation.”
The success of the first Artemis flight paves the way for further lunar missions in quick order. Nasa plans an Artemis II flight around the moon and back with astronauts on board possibly by 2024, with the first human lunar landing to follow with Artemis III potentially the following year.
NASA scientists were particularly relieved by the successful return of the Orion capsule given Artemis’ troubled beginnings. Delays and cost overruns hampered the program, with storms and fuel leaks forcing launches to be postponed until summer and fall.
Orion lifted off Nov. 16 from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. During its 25-day, $4 billion flight, Orion traveled 1.4 million miles (2.25 million km) and came within 80 miles (130 km) of the moon during a week-long orbit.
Nasa was keen to test the reliability of its new heat shield deployed during the last 20 minutes of flight to deal with temperatures of nearly 2,760°C (5,000°F) generated during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. . It did so at speeds of up to 24,500 mph, with atmospheric friction being used to slow the capsule to around 325 mph before the parachutes were engaged, ensuring a dignified splash.
Mission architects also tested a maneuver known as “skip-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 again, both to reduce the force of gravity and to allow more precise targeting of the landing site.