NASA’s Orion capsule splashes down in San Diego as it returns from a test flight around the Moon – NBC Chicago
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 hit the atmosphere at Mach 32, 32 times the speed of sound, and experienced re-entry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) before crashing west of the Lower -California of Mexico, near the island of Guadalupe. A Navy vessel moved quickly to retrieve the spacecraft and its silent occupants – three test dummies equipped with vibration sensors and radiation monitors.
NASA needed a successful splashdown to stay on track for Orion’s next flight around the moon, currently scheduled for 2024. Four astronauts will make the trip. This will be followed by a two-person lunar landing as early as 2025.
Astronauts last landed on the Moon 50 years ago on Sunday. After landing on Dec. 11, 1972, Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent three days exploring the lunar surface, 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 on NASA’s new mega moon 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.
And 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 crumbling budgets. Fuel leaks and hurricanes conspired for further postponements in late summer and fall.
Getting people on the next flight “will increase the excitement,” said Nujoud Merancy, head of NASA’s Houston Exploration Mission Office.
“Nobody went to the moon in my lifetime, did they? ” she says. “So this is the exploration that so many of us have dreamed of.”
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.
The splash occurred more than 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 nearly a week before returning 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.
“The room was absolutely silent as we absorbed the Earthrise moment,” mission lead Mike Sarafin recalled last week. Just 4 months old when Apollo 17 closed the first lunar era, he considered it “my Earthrise too, as part of the Artemis generation.”
The moon has never been so hot. Hours earlier on Sunday, a spacecraft blasted off to the moon from Cape Canaveral. The lunar lander is owned by 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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