NASA’s uncrewed Orion capsule passed its final exam today, surviving a fiery atmospheric re-entry and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean at the end of a round-the-moon test flight.
The 25.5-day Artemis 1 mission set the stage for future moon trips with astronauts aboard, 50 years after the last Apollo moon mission.
“From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the latest chapter of NASA’s journey to the moon comes to a close,” NASA spokesman Rob Navias said as Orion settled in the waters off the coast of Baja California at 9:40 a.m. PT. “Orion, back on Earth.”
Orion’s odyssey began in mid-November with the first-ever launch of NASA’s giant Space Launch System rocket, and traced a route that came as close as 80 miles to the lunar surface and ranged as far out as 40,000 miles beyond the moon. Orion traveled 1.4 million miles in all.
On the way back to Earth, cameras mounted on the spacecraft’s solar array wings sent back spectacular imagery of our planet looming larger in Orion’s metaphorical windshield. Once the spacecraft jettisoned its European-built service module, a set of thrusters built at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, Wash., controlled the capsule’s orientation for atmospheric re-entry.
Mission managers said Orion’s descent ranked among the sternest tests of the mission. As the spacecraft hit the top part of the atmosphere at a velocity of nearly 25,000 mph, Orion’s heat shield had to weather temperatures around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. After that trial by fire, parachutes slowed the descent further, allowing the spacecraft to hit the ocean at about 20 mph.
Navias said it was a “textbook entry.”