© Reuters. FILEPHOTO: NASA’s next generation moon rocket, Space Launch System (SLS), launches from launch complex 39B. The rocket carries the Orion crew capsule. It is seen from Sebastian in Florida, U.S.A., November 16, 2022. REUTE
Joey Roulette, Steve Gorman
(Reuters). -NASA’s Orion capsule blasted through Earth’s atmosphere to splash down in the Pacific ocean Sunday. The uncrewed voyage around moon ended with the inaugural mission of U.S. agency Artemis’ new lunar program.
The Orion capsule in gumdrop shape, carrying three simulated crew members wired with sensors, was dropped in the ocean at 9.40 AM PST (1740 GMT). It was located off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. This marked a high-stakes homecoming, before the first crew of astronauts flew around the moon.
NASA’s most recent chapter ends with “From Tranquility Base, Taurus-Littrow, and the calm waters of the Pacific. NASA commentator Rob Navias stated Orion, back on Earth” in a live stream. This refers to the lunar sites NASA’s capsule has soared over during its mission.
After splashdown, two U.S. military helicopters and several fast boats approached the capsule for inspections. These inspections are expected to last approximately two hours. A U.S. Navy ship, the USS Portland stood just 5 miles (8 km) from Orion’s capsule. Orion will be transported to San Diego by a naval vessel.
The splashdown ended a 25 day mission, less than one week after passing about 79% (127km) above Earth in a lunar flyby. It came just two weeks after reaching the farthest point of space, 270,000 miles (434.500 km) away from Earth.
The capsule plunged into Earth’s atmosphere for a fiery 20-minute descent. It did so by placing its service module in orbit.
Atmospheric friction caused the capsule to slow down from 24,500 mph (39,400 km/h) to 325mph. Then, two sets of parachutes helped to brake its speed to 20mph at splashdown. Navias stated that the capsule had a “perfect” descent speed.
On Nov. 16, NASA’s next-generation Space Launch System, (SLS) at Cape Canaveral, Florida launched the capsule. It is now the world’s strongest rocket and the largest NASA has built since the Apollo era.
Apollo’s successor program Artemis was launched by the SLS-Orion mission. It aimed to return astronauts to the lunar surface in this decade and establish a base there that can be used as a steppingstone to future human explorations of Mars.
The mission engineers will spend many months reviewing data from Artemis I. The crewed Artemis II flight to the moon and back may be possible as soon as 2024. This will be followed by Artemis III, which will see the first lunar landing of astronauts (one of whom is a woman).
Despite some unexpected communications blackouts and electrical issues during its journey around the moon, NASA gave high marks to both Orion and SLS so far and boasted that they had exceeded U.S. space agency expectations.
Artemis I returned to Earth on the 50th anniversary from the Apollo 17 moon landings of Gene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt and Dec. 11, 1972. They were the final of twelve NASA astronauts who walked on the moon in six Apollo missions that began in 1969.
Orion’s single most crucial phase was Re-entry. This phase tested the new heat shield’s ability to withstand atmospheric friction while safely protecting astronauts.
At a briefing last Wednesday, NASA’s Artemis I mission manager Mike Sarafin stated that “it is our priority-one goal.” “There is no aerothermal or arc-jet facility on Earth that can replicate hypersonic reentry with a heat shield this large.”
NASA officials stressed the experimental nature and launch of Artemis I, the Boeing (NYSE) Co-built SLS, marking the first launch. This is also the first combined launch with Orion. Orion had previously flown a two-orbit test on a smaller Delta IV rocket back in 2014.
Artemis, which was born out of the Cold War-era U.S.SR space race, is more science-driven and broad-based than Apollo. It enlists commercial partners like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Canada’s Space Agency, Japan, and Canada’s SpaceX.
It is also a turning point in NASA’s history, as it redirects its human-spaceflight program from low-Earth orbit to support spaceflight. After decades of focusing on space shuttles and ISS, this was a significant moment for NASA.