CAPE CANAVAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s Orion capsule returned at breakneck speed from the moon Sunday, parachuting into the Pacific Ocean off Mexico to finish a test flight that will pave the way for astronauts on the next trip to the moon.
The incoming capsule slammed into the atmosphere at Mach 32, or 32 times the speed of sound, and endured re-entry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) before crashing west of Baja California near Guadalupe Island. A Navy ship 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 confused,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson of Mission Control in Houston. “This is an extraordinary day… It’s historic because now we’re going back into space — deep space — with a new generation.”
The space agency needed a successful flyby to stay on track for Orion’s next trip around the moon, which is targeted for 2024 with four astronauts to be unveiled early next year. This will be followed by two moon landings as early as 2025 and, eventually, a sustainable lunar base. The long-term plan is to launch an expedition to Mars by the late 2000s.
The last time astronauts landed on the moon was 50 years ago. After landing on December 11, 1972, Eugene Cernan of Apollo 17 and Harrison Schmidt spent three days exploring the Taurus-Littrow Valley, the longest stay of the Apollo era. They were the last of the 12 to walk on the moon.
Orion was the first capsule to visit the moon since then, launching on NASA’s new giant moon rocket from Kennedy Space Center on November 16.. This was the first flight of NASA’s new Artemis Moon program, which is named after Apollo’s legendary twin sister.
“From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow to the calm waters of the Pacific Ocean, the final chapter of NASA’s journey to the Moon is approaching. Orion back on Earth,” mission control commentator Rob Navias announced.
While no one was on the $4 billion test flight, NASA managers were happy to do the dress-up, especially after so many years of flight delays and troubled budgets. Fuel leaks and tornadoes combined for additional delays in the late summer and fall.
In a throwback to Apollo, NASA threw a splash party at Johnson Space Center in Houston on Sunday, where employees and their families gathered to watch a broadcast of Orion’s homecoming. Nearby, the visitor center threw a bash to the public.
Restoring Orion intact after the 25-day flight was a major goal for NASA. With a return speed of 25,000 mph (40,000 km/h) — much faster than coming from low Earth orbit — the capsule used a new, advanced heat shield that had not been tested before in spaceflight. To reduce gravity or G-loads, dip into the atmosphere and skip briefly, which also helps to define the splash zone.
Officials noted that all this happened in an amazing way, allowing Orion to return safely.
“I don’t think any of us could have imagined a mission as successful as this,” said Mission Director Mike Saravin.
More inspections will take place once Orion returns to Kennedy by the end of the month. If capsule checks find nothing amiss, NASA will announce its first lunar crew amid great fanfare in early 2023, to choose from the 42 active American astronauts stationed at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“People are concerned, and we know that,” Johnson’s chief executive, Vanessa Wyche, told reporters. Nelson added, “The American people, just like (with) the original seven astronauts in the days of Mercury, will want to know more about these astronauts.”
The capsule fell more than 300 miles (482 kilometers) south of the original target area. Forecasts calling for choppy waves and high winds off the coast of Southern California prompted NASA to change the location.
Orion logged 1.4 million miles (2.25 million kilometers) as it approached the moon and then entered a wide, flipped orbit for about a week. before going home.
It has come within 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the Moon twice. At its farthest point, the capsule was more than 268,000 miles (430,000 kilometers) from Earth.
Orion has sent back stunning images not only of the gray etched moon, but also of its home planet. As a parting method, the capsule revealed Earth’s crescent – Earthrise – which left the mission team speechless.
Nottingham Trent University astronomer Daniel Brown said the flight’s many accomplishments illustrate NASA’s ability to place astronauts on the next Artemis lunar mission.
“This was a moving end to an amazing and important journey for NASA’s Orion spacecraft,” Brown said in a statement from England.
The moon has never been hotter. Just hours before Sunday, a spacecraft blasted off toward the Moon from Cape Canaveral. The lunar probe belongs to ispace, a company in Tokyo bent on developing the economy there. Meanwhile, two American companies have lunar landing vehicles early next year.
The Associated Press Health and Science section receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Education Media group. AP is solely responsible for all content.
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