© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: NASA’s next-generation moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion crew capsule, lifts off from launch complex 39-B on the unmanned Artemis 1 mission to the moon, seen from Sebastian, Florida, U.S. November 16, 2022. REUTE
By Joey Roulette and Steve Gorman
(Reuters) -NASA’s Orion capsule barreled through Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down in the Pacific ocean on Sunday after making an uncrewed voyage around the moon, winding up the inaugural mission of the U.S. agency’s new Artemis lunar program 50 years to the day after Apollo’s final moon landing.
The gumdrop-shaped Orion capsule, carrying a simulated crew of three mannequins wired with sensors, plunked down in the ocean at 9:40 a.m. PST (1740 GMT) off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, demonstrating a high-stakes homecoming before flying its first crew of astronauts around the moon in the next few years.
“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. Orion, back on Earth,” said NASA commentator Rob Navias on a live stream of the return, referring to the lunar sites the capsule soared over during its mission.
A U.S. military helicopter and a group of fast boats approached the capsule after splashdown for inspections that will last roughly two hours. Standing by some 5 miles (8 km) away was the USS Portland, a U.S. Naval vessel that will welcome Orion aboard to transport the capsule to San Diego, California.
The splashdown capped a 25-day mission less than a week after passing about 79 miles (127 km) above the moon in a lunar fly-by, and came about two weeks after reaching its farthest point in space, nearly 270,000 miles (434,500 km) from Earth.
Roughly 30 minutes before splashing down, the capsule committed to its fiery, 20-minute plunge into Earth’s atmosphere when it shedded its service module in space, exposing a heatshield that reached peak temperatures of nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) during its blazing-fast descent.
Atmospheric friction slowed the capsule from 24,500 miles per hour (39,400 kph) to 325 mph, followed by two sets of parachutes that helped brake its speed to an expected 20 mph at splashdown. The capsule showed a “perfect” descent rate, Navias said.
The capsule blasted off on Nov. 16 from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, atop NASA’s towering next-generation Space Launch System (SLS), now the world’s most powerful rocket and the biggest NASA has built since the Saturn V of the Apollo era.
The debut SLS-Orion voyage kicked off Apollo’s successor program, Artemis, aimed at returning astronauts to the lunar surface this decade and establishing a sustainable base there as a stepping stone to future human exploration of Mars.
Mission engineers will spend months examining data from the Artemis I mission. A crewed Artemis II flight around the moon and back could come as early as 2024, followed within a few more years by the program’s first lunar landing of astronauts, one of them a woman, with Artemis III.
Though the capsule encountered some unexpected communication blackouts and an electrical issue during its voyage around the moon, NASA has given high marks to the performance of both SLS and Orion so far, boasting that they exceeded the U.S. space agency’s expectations.
By coincidence, the return to Earth of Artemis I unfolded on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 17 moon landing of Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt on Dec. 11, 1972. They were the last of 12 NASA astronauts to walk on the moon during a total of six Apollo missions starting in 1969.
Re-entry marked the single most critical phase of Orion’s journey, testing whether its newly designed heat shield can withstand atmospheric friction and safely protect astronauts that would be on board.
“It is our priority-one objective,” NASA’s Artemis I mission manager Mike Sarafin said at a briefing last week. “There is no arc-jet or aerothermal facility here on Earth capable of replicating hypersonic re-entry with a heat shield of this size.”
NASA officials have stressed the experimental nature of the Artemis I mission, marking the first launch of the Boeing (NYSE:) Co-built SLS and the first combined with Orion, which previously flew a brief two-orbit test launched on a smaller Delta IV rocket in 2014.
Compared with Apollo, born of the Cold War-era U.S.-Soviet space race, Artemis is more science driven and broad-based, enlisting commercial partners such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the space agencies of Europe, Canada, and Japan.
It also marks a major turning point for NASA, redirecting its human spaceflight program beyond low-Earth orbit after decades focused on space shuttles and the ISS.