Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s Orion capsule made a blistering return from the moon Sunday, completing a test flight by parachute in the Pacific off Mexico that will clear the way for astronauts on the next lunar flyby.
The incoming capsule hit the atmosphere at Mach 32, or 32 times the speed of sound, and again endured temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) before splashing down west of Baja. California Near Guadalupe Island. A Navy ship quickly moved in to retrieve the spacecraft and its silent occupants—three test dummies rigged with vibration sensors and radiation monitors.
As congratulations poured in from Washington, NASA hailed the descent and splashdown as close to perfect.
“I’m thrilled,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson from Mission Control in Houston. “It’s an extraordinary day … it’s historic because we’re now going back into space — into 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, with four astronauts targeted for 2024 to be unveiled early next year. That will be followed by a two-person lunar landing in early 2025 and eventually a permanent lunar base. A long-term plan would be to launch a Mars mission in the late 2030s.
Astronauts landed on the moon 50 years ago. On December 11, 1972, Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt spent three days exploring the Taurus-Lytro Valley, the longest period of the Apollo era. They were the last of the 12 moons.
“From the quiet base of Taurus-Lytro to the calm waters of the Pacific Ocean, the latest chapter of NASA’s journey to the Moon is coming to an end. Orion is back on Earth,” announced Mission Control Commentator Rob Navias.
With no one aboard the $4 billion test flight, NASA managers were happy to call off the dress rehearsal, especially after years of flight delays and broken budgets. Fuel spills and hurricanes conspired for additional postponements in the late summer and fall.
In an Apollo throwback, NASA held a splashdown party at Houston’s Johnson Space Center on Sunday, as employees and their families gathered to watch the broadcast of Orion’s homecoming. The visitor center next door threw a bash for the public.
NASA’s main objective was to recover Orion after a 25-day flight. With a return speed of 25,000 mph (40,000 km) — significantly faster than from low Earth orbit — the capsule used a new, advanced heat shield never before tested in spaceflight. To reduce gravity or G loads, it is submerged in the atmosphere, briefly avoided, and helps locate the splashdown area.
All that unfolded in spectacular fashion, officials noted, allowing Orion to return safely.
“I don’t think any of us could have imagined this successful mission,” said mission manager Mike Sarafin.
Further studies will be conducted once Orion returns to Kennedy by the end of the month. If the capsule tests are correct, NASA will announce the first lunar crew in early 2023, amid considerable hoopla, from the 42 active U.S. astronauts stationed at Houston’s Johnson Space Center.
“People are curious, we know that,” Johnson’s director, Vanessa Wyche, told reporters. Nelson added: “The American people want to know about these astronauts as much as (with) the original seven astronauts on Wednesday.”
The capsule splashed down about 300 miles (482 kilometers) south of the original target zone. Forecasts of rough seas and high winds off the coast of Southern California prompted NASA to relocate.
It came within 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the moon twice. At its most distant, the capsule was 268,000 miles (430,000 kilometers) from Earth.
Orion flashed back stunning photos of not just the gray, hollow moon, but the home planet. As parting shot, the capsule revealed a crescent of Earth – the Earthrise – which left the mission team speechless.
Nottingham Trent University astronomer Daniel Brown said the flight’s many achievements illustrate NASA’s ability to put astronauts on the next Artemis moonshot.
“This is a nail-biting conclusion to an exciting and important mission for NASA’s Orion spacecraft,” Brown said in a statement from England.
The moon has never been warmer. A few hours ago on Sunday, a spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral toward the moon. The lunar landing belongs to space, a Tokyo company aiming to boost the economy there. Meanwhile, two American companies have launched lunar landers early next year.
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