NASA’s Orion capsule reached the Moon on Monday. It didn’t land but whipped around the far side and buzzed the lunar surface. The astronaut-less Orion is on its way to a record-breaking orbit.
Orion’s journey is the first time a capsule has traveled to the Moon since NASA’s Apollo program 50 years ago. The Moon arrival represents a huge milestone in the $4.1 billion test flight that began a week ago.
The crew capsule and its three wired-up dummies flew just 81 miles from the Moon’s surface on its far side. During a half-hour communication blackout, flight controllers in Houston did not know if a critical engine firing went well until the capsule emerged from behind the Moon.
The capsule’s cameras sent back a picture of the Earth—a tiny blue orb surrounded by blackness.
The capsule accelerated well beyond 5,000 mph as it regained radio contact, NASA says. Less than an hour later, Orion soared above Tranquility Base. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed in that spot on July 20, 1969.
“This is one of those days that you’ve been thinking about and talking about for a long, long time,” flight director Zeb Scoville says.
The Artemis 1 mission’s rocket blasted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center last week. It is the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA. Orion needed the force to slingshot around the Moon after separating from the rocket. The capsule must pick up enough speed to enter the sweeping, lopsided lunar orbit.
Flight controllers evaluated the data pouring back to the control center. They examined whether Orion’s engine firing went as planned. Another firing will place the capsule in the lunar orbit on Friday.
This coming weekend, Orion should shatter NASA’s distance record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts—nearly 250,000 miles from Earth. Apollo 13 set the record in 1970. And Orion will keep going, reaching a maximum distance from Earth next Monday of nearly 270,000 miles.
The capsule will spend close to a week in lunar orbit before heading home. A Pacific splashdown is planned for December 11.
Orion has no lunar lander. A touchdown won’t come until NASA astronauts attempt a lunar landing in 2025 with SpaceX’s Starship. Before then, astronauts will strap into Orion for a ride around the Moon as early as 2024.
NASA managers are delighted with the progress of the current mission. The Space Launch System rocket performed exceedingly well in its debut, they told reporters.
However, the 322-foot rocket caused more damage than expected at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad. Force from the 8.8 million pounds of liftoff thrust was so great that it tore the blast doors off the launch tower elevator.
To Him who made the great lights, for His steadfast love endures forever; the Sun to rule over the day, for His steadfast love endures forever; the Moon and stars to rule over the night, for His steadfast love endures forever. — Psalm 136:7-9
(This screengrab from NASA TV shows NASA’s Orion capsule, left, nearing the Moon, right, on November 21, 2022. At center is Earth. NASA via AP)