NASA’s Orion spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean Sunday afternoon, returning from its trip around the Moon.
The Artemis program, set to take humans back to the lunar surface, successfully completed its first major mission by testing Orion—NASA’s newest human-rated spacecraft.
According to NASA, the Artemis I flight test broke several records, which included launching the world’s most powerful rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS).
Over Orion’s nearly 26-day journey, the spacecraft performed two lunar flybys within 80 miles of the moon’s surface and traveled nearly 270,000 miles away from Earth—the farthest any human-rated spacecraft has flown. In total, Orion traveled more than 1.4 million miles during its trip.
“With Orion safely returned to Earth we can begin to see our next mission on the horizon which will fly crew to the Moon for the first time as a part of the next era of exploration,” said Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate. “This begins our path to a regular cadence of missions and a sustained human presence at the Moon for scientific discovery and to prepare for human missions to Mars.”
Onboard the spacecraft sat Commander Moonikin Campos, a sensor-laiden mannequin, biology experiments, and a Snoopy doll, to measure the various conditions future astronauts may face on later missions to the moon and Mars.
Astronauts will be onboard the next mission, Artemis II, currently scheduled for May 2024. However, Artemis astronauts will not touch down on the lunar surface until Artemis III the following year.
Orion’s splashdown also marked a special anniversary for the agency.
“The splashdown of the Orion spacecraft—which occurred 50 years to the day of the Apollo 17 Moon landing—is the crowning achievement of Artemis I. From the launch of the world’s most powerful rocket to the exceptional journey around the Moon and back to Earth, this flight test is a major step forward in the Artemis Generation of lunar exploration,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
“It wouldn’t be possible without the incredible NASA team. For years, thousands of individuals have poured themselves into this mission, which is inspiring the world to work together to reach untouched cosmic shores,” Nelson said. “Today is a huge win for NASA, the United States, our international partners, and all of humanity.”
Splashdown.— NASA (@NASA) December 11, 2022
After traveling 1.4 million miles through space, orbiting the Moon, and collecting data that will prepare us to send astronauts on future #Artemis missions, the @NASA_Orion spacecraft is home. pic.twitter.com/ORxCtGa9v7
According to NASA, Orion approached Earth’s atmosphere at almost 25,000 miles per hour—nearly 32 times the speed of sound. The spacecraft was also the first to complete a skip maneuver, where the spacecraft dipped into Earth’s atmosphere to reduce its speed, then reentered to make its final approach.
“Orion has returned from the Moon and is safely back on planet Earth,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager. “With splashdown we have successfully operated Orion in the deep space environment, where it exceeded our expectations, and demonstrated that Orion can withstand the extreme conditions of returning through Earth’s atmosphere from lunar velocities.”