NASA’s Orion splashes after $4 billion moon trip that points to possible lunar base
NASA’s Orion capsule made an extremely fast return from the moon on Sunday, parachuting into the Pacific off Mexico to conclude a test flight that should pave the way for astronauts on the next lunar flyby.
The incoming capsule struck the atmosphere at Mach 32, or 32 times the speed of sound, and experienced re-entry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) before crashing west of Baja. California near Guadalupe Island. A Navy vessel moved quickly to retrieve the spacecraft and its silent occupants – three test dummies equipped with vibration sensors and radiation monitors.
NASA hailed the descent and splashdown as close to perfect, as congratulations poured in from Washington.
“I’m overwhelmed,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said from Mission Control in Houston. “It’s an amazing day… It’s historic because we’re now going back to space – deep space – with a new generation.”
The space agency needed a successful splashdown to stay on track for the next Orion flight around the moon, scheduled for 2024 with four astronauts to be revealed early next year. This would be followed by a two-person moon landing as early as 2025 and ultimately a sustainable moon base. The long-term plan would be to launch an expedition to Mars by the end of the 2030s.
Astronauts last landed on the Moon 50 years ago. After landing on December 11, 1972, Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent three days exploring the Taurus-Littrow Valley, the longest sojourn of the Apollo era. They were the last of the 12 moonwalkers.
Orion was the first capsule to visit the moon since then, launched by NASA new mega lunar rocket from Kennedy Space Center on November 16. It was the first flight of NASA’s new Artemis lunar program, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister.
“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,” announced Mission Control commentator Rob Navias .
While no one was on the $4 billion test flight, NASA officials were excited to hold the dress rehearsal, especially after so many years of flight delays and shrinking budgets. Fuel leaks and hurricanes conspired for further postponements in late summer and fall.
In a throwback to Apollo, NASA hosted a party at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Sunday, with employees and their families gathered to watch the broadcast of Orion’s return. Next door, the visitor center held a party for the public.
Recovering Orion intact after the 25-day flight was NASA’s primary goal. With a return speed of 25,000 mph (40,000 km/h) – considerably faster than coming from low Earth orbit – the capsule used a new advanced heat shield never before tested in spaceflight. To reduce gravity or G-charges, he dove into the atmosphere and briefly jumped, also helping to locate the splash zone.
This all unfolded spectacularly, officials noted, allowing Orion’s safe return.
“I don’t think any of us could have imagined such a successful mission,” said Mission Manager Mike Sarafin.
Further inspections will be conducted once Orion returns to Kennedy by the end of the month. If capsule checks find nothing wrong, NASA will announce the first lunar crew amid considerable hype in early 2023, choosing from among the 42 active American astronauts stationed at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“People are anxious, we know that,” Vanessa Wyche, Johnson’s manager, told reporters. Nelson added, “The American people, much like (with) the first seven astronauts in the time of Mercury, are going to want to know more about these astronauts.”
The capsule crashed over 300 miles (482 kilometers) south of the original target area. Forecasts of rough seas and high winds off the southern California coast prompted NASA to change its location.
Orion traveled 1.4 million miles (2.25 million kilometers) as it zoomed in on the moon, then entered a wide, dipping orbit for almost a week before going home.
He twice came within 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the moon. At its furthest point, the capsule was more than 268,000 miles (430,000 kilometers) from Earth.
Orion returned some great photos not only of the gray, pitted moon, but of the home planet as well. As a farewell, the capsule revealed a crescent of Earth – Earthrise – which left the mission team speechless.
Nottingham Trent University astronomer Daniel Brown said the flight’s many accomplishments illustrated NASA’s ability to put astronauts on Artemis’ next moonshot.
“This was the bitter end to an incredible and important journey for NASA’s Orion spacecraft,” Brown said in a statement from England.
The moon has never been so hot. Hours earlier on Sunday, a spacecraft blasted off to the moon from Cape Canaveral. The lunar lander belongs to ispace, a Tokyo-based company keen to develop an economy there. Two US companies, meanwhile, launched lunar landers early next year.
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