Orion splashdown on time at the end of Artemis’s first mission to the moon


NASA completed a significant step toward returning astronauts to the lunar surface Sunday with the successful completion of a test mission that sent a capsule designed for human spaceflight to orbit the moon and return safely to Earth.

The Orion spacecraft, which had no astronauts on board, crashed into the Pacific Ocean off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula under a trio of billowing parachutes at 12:40 pm ET.

Orion’s homecoming came 50 years after the Apollo 17 spacecraft landed on the lunar surface in 1972 in the Taurus-Littrow Valley, the last human mission to the moon. And it announced, the space agency said, a series of upcoming missions to be flown by a new generation of NASA astronauts as part of the Artemis program.

The flight was repeatedly delayed by technical problems with the massive Space Launch System rocket and spacecraft. But the 26-day, 1.4 million-mile mission went “extremely well,” NASA officials said, from launch on November 16 through flybys that brought Orion to within about 80 miles of the lunar surface and directly over the Apollo 11 landing site. at Tranquility Base.

“From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow and the calm waters of the Pacific, the final chapter of NASA’s journey to the moon comes to a close. Orion, back to Earth,” NASA’s Rob Navias said during the agency’s live broadcast of the event.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said it was “historic because now we are going back into space, into deep space, with a new generation.” The successful mission heralds a new era, he added, “one that marks new technology, a new generation of astronauts and a vision of the future.”

“This is what mission success looks like, folks,” Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis I mission manager, said at an evening news conference. “This was a challenging mission. … We now have a fundamental deep space transportation system. And while we haven’t analyzed all the data we’ve acquired, we will in the coming days and weeks.”

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Now that the spacecraft is safely at home, NASA will immediately begin evaluating the data collected on the flight and preparing for the Artemis II mission, which would put a crew of astronauts in the spacecraft for another journey into orbit around Moon. NASA expects the mission to arrive in 2024, with a moon landing in 2025 or 2026. That would be the first time people have walked on the moon since the last of the Apollo missions.

NASA has yet to name the crews assigned to those flights, which would arrive in early 2023, said Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. But its astronaut corps has already shifted their training to focus on lunar and Orion flights, after spending decades focusing solely on missions to the International Space Station.

One of the most significant tests for the Orion spacecraft came Sunday morning when it hit Earth’s atmosphere traveling at nearly 25,000 mph, 32 times the speed of sound. The friction generated extreme temperatures, 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which stressed the capsule’s heat shield. A series of parachutes then deployed, carrying the spacecraft into the ocean at less than 20 mph, where a Navy recovery ship, the USS Portland, and several small boats and helicopters waited to receive it.

Nelson said the heat shield worked “very well”, and Navias said the landing was “textbook”.

The successful mission gives NASA some momentum after years of stagnation in its human spaceflight program. After retiring the space shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA was forced to rely on Russia to send its astronauts to the space station. SpaceX finally began human spaceflight missions for NASA in 2020, and Boeing, the other company contracted for flights to the ISS, hopes to send its first crew there next year.

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But now, for the first time in decades, NASA has another destination for its astronauts, the moon, and a program, Artemis, that has survived subsequent presidential administrations, to get them there.

The program, which promises to put the first woman and person of color on the moon, was born under the Trump administration and was continued by the Biden White House. That continuity stands in stark contrast to decades of presidential administrations pointing NASA’s direction of human space exploration toward different targets in the solar system, from the moon to Mars to an asteroid and back to the moon again.

The question now is: Can NASA keep up the momentum of the program and get Congress to fund it? Support for spaceflight programs can be fickle, with even the Apollo missions quickly beginning to lose congressional support and public interest. And while NASA might be celebrating Artemis I as a triumph today, that enthusiasm could easily fade by the time Artemis II is ready to fly in 2024.

At the post-flight news conference, Nelson, a former US senator from Florida, said he is confident excitement will continue to build among the public, particularly as NASA names the crew for the next mission. Congress is also involved in the program, he said. “I’m not worried about congressional support,” he said. “That support is lasting.”

While that remains to be seen, NASA was celebrating the first step toward returning astronauts to the moon and fulfilling the promise of Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, who promised, as he left the moon towards Earth, “We shall return.”

Robert Cabana, NASA associate administrator and former astronaut, said he wished Cernan “was alive and could have seen this mission. It would have meant a lot to him.”

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