from NASA Artemis 1 moon ship returned to Earth on Sunday, crashing into the upper atmosphere at over 24,000 mph and enduring a 5,000 degree re-entry hell before settling into a perfect dip in the Pacific Ocean to close out a test flight of 25 days of 1.4 million miles to the moon and back.
Descending under three huge parachutes, the unmanned 9-ton Orion capsule gently touched down in the water 200 miles west of Baja California at 12:40 p.m. EST, 20 minutes after encountering the first traces of the atmosphere noticeable at 76 miles.
“I’m overwhelmed. It’s an amazing day,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “This is historic, as we are now returning to deep space with a new generation.”
In a fitting if unforeseen coincidence, the splash came 50 years to the day after Apollo 17’s last moon landing in 1972 and just 10 hours after SpaceX. spear a Japanese lunar lander, the first sent on a purely commercial endeavor, from Cape Canaveral.
“From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the final chapter of NASA’s journey to the Moon is coming to an end. Orion, back on Earth,” said NASA commentator Rob Navias at the time of the Orion splashdown, referring to the Apollo 11 and 17 landing sites.
Nelson also reflected on Apollo, saying that President John F. Kennedy “stunned everyone with the Apollo generation and said we were going to achieve what we thought was impossible.”
“It’s a new day,” Nelson said. “A new day has dawned. And the Artemis generation is taking us there.”
A joint Navy-NASA recovery team stood within sight of the Orion splashdown to inspect the scorched capsule and, after a final series of tests, tow it into the flooded well deck of the USS Portland, a amphibious docked vessel.
Once the seawater is pumped out, Orion will settle into a protective cradle for the return trip to Naval Base San Diego and, eventually, a return trip to Kennedy Space Center.
Re-entry and splashdown were the primary end goals of the Artemis 1 test flight, giving engineers confidence that the spacecraft’s 16.5-foot-wide Apollo-derived Avcoat heat shield and parachutes will work. as expected when four astronauts return from the moon after the next Artemis flight in 2024.
Testing the heat shield was, in fact, the top priority for the Artemis 1 mission, “and it’s our top priority for a reason,” mission manager Mike Sarafin said Friday.
“There is no arc jet or aerothermal facility here on Earth capable of replicating hypersonic re-entry with a heat shield of this size,” he said. “And it’s a whole new heat shield design, and it’s safety critical equipment. It’s designed to protect the spacecraft and (future astronauts)…so the heat shield has to work.”
And it apparently did, with no obvious signs of major damage. Likewise, the three main parachutes deployed normally, as did the airbags needed to stabilize the capsule in light ocean waves.
A successful test flight was “what we need to prove this vehicle can fly with a crew,” said Deputy Administrator Bob Cabana, former commander of the space shuttle. “And that’s the next step, and I can’t wait. … A few minor issues along the way, but (overall) it worked perfectly.”
Spear November 16 On the maiden flight of NASA’s massive new Space Launch System rocket, the unmanned Orion capsule was blasted out of Earth orbit and onto the moon for an exhaustive series of tests, putting its propulsion, navigation systems , power and computer-proof in the deep space environment.
The Orion flew halfway through a “distant retrograde orbit” around the moon that took it farther from Earth – 268,563 miles – than any previous human-sized spacecraft. Two critical ignitions of its main engine set up a low-altitude lunar flyby last Monday which, in turn, set the craft on course for splashdown on Sunday.
NASA originally planned to take the ship west of San Diego, but an expected cold front bringing stronger winds and rougher seas prompted mission officials to move the landing site south. of about 350 miles, to a point just south of Guadalupe Island about 200 miles to the west. of Baja California.
After a final course correction maneuver early Sunday, the Orion spacecraft plunged back into the perceptible atmosphere at an altitude of 400,000 feet at 12:20 p.m.
The re-entry profile was designed to ensure that Orion jumps once through the top of the atmosphere like a flat stone jumping through calm water before making its final descent. As expected, Orion plunged from 400,000 feet to an altitude of about 200,000 feet in just two minutes, then climbed back up to about 295,000 feet before resuming its computer-guided fall toward Earth.
Within a minute and a half of entering, atmospheric friction began generating temperatures across the heat shield reaching nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit – half the temperature of the visible surface of the sun – shrouding the spacecraft in an electrically charged plasma that blocked communications with flight controllers for approximately five minutes.
After another two-and-a-half-minute communications blackout during its second fall into the lower atmosphere, the spacecraft continued to decelerate as it neared the landing site, slowing to about 650 mph, about the speed of sound, about 15 minutes after entry began.
Finally, at an altitude of approximately 22,000 feet and at a speed of just under 300 mph, small drug parachutes deployed, removing one protective cover as well as three pilot parachutes. Finally, in a welcome sight for the nearby recovery team, the capsule’s main parachutes unfurled at an altitude of about 5,000 feet, slowing Orion to about 18 mph for splashdown.
The duration of the mission was 25 days 10 hours 52 minutes.
“It was an incredible mission. We achieved all of our major mission objectives,” said Michelle Zahner, Orion Mission Planning Engineer. “The vehicle performed as well as we expected and even better in many ways.
“It’s the furthest any human-rated spacecraft has ever been, and it took a lot of complex analysis and mission planning. To see it all come together and have a test mission as well. successful was amazing.”
As flight controllers encountered as-yet-unexplained problems with its power system, the initial “funnies” with its star trackers and degraded performance of a phased array antenna, the Orion spacecraft and its service module built by the European Space Agency performed well overall, achieving virtually all of their major goals.
If all goes well, NASA plans to follow the Artemis 1 mission by sending four astronauts around the moon on the program’s second flight – Artemis 2 – in 2024. The first moon landing would follow in the 2025-26 timeframe when NASA announces the first woman and the next man will set foot on the lunar surface near the south pole.
While the 2024 flight seems feasible based on the results of the Artemis 1 mission, the Artemis 3 moon landing faces a much more difficult schedule, requiring good performance during the Artemis 3 mission and development and testing. successes of the lunar lander. NASA pays SpaceX $2.9. billion to develop.
The lander, a variant of the company’s Starship rocket, has yet to fly into space. But it will take several robotic resupply flights in low Earth orbit before heading to the moon to await the rendezvous of the astronauts launched aboard an Orion capsule.
SpaceX and NASA have provided few details on the development of the Starship lunar lander, and it’s unclear when it will be ready to safely carry astronauts to the moon.