Major milestone for NASA’s Artemis program as Orion capsule flies past moon

NASA’s Orion capsule reached the moon on Monday, swooped around the far side and buzzed the lunar surface on its way to a record-breaking orbit with test dummies for astronauts.

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It’s the first time a capsule has visited the moon since NASA’s Apollo program 50 years ago, and represents a huge milestone in the $4.1 billion test flight that began Wednesday.

Video of the looming moon and our pale blue planet more than 230,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) in the distance left workers “dizzy” at Houston’s Johnson Space Center, home of Mission Control, according to flight director Judd Frieling. Even the air traffic controllers themselves were “Absolutely amazed.”

“Just smiles across the board,” said Orion program manager Howard Hu.

The closest approach of 81 miles (130 kilometers) occurred when the crew capsule and its three tethered dummies were on the far side of the moon. Because of a half-hour communications blackout, air traffic controllers in Houston did not know whether the critical engine firing was successful until the capsule appeared behind the moon. The capsule’s cameras sent back an image of Earth – a tiny blue dot surrounded by black.

The capsule was accelerating well over 5,000 mph (8,000 km/h) when it regained radio contact, NASA said. Less than an hour later, Orion hovered over Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969. There were no photos of the site because the pass was in darkness, but managers promised to try to take photos on the return flight. in two weeks.

Orion needed to swing around the moon to gain enough speed to enter the sweeping, oblique lunar orbit. Another engine firing will put the capsule into that orbit on Friday.

This coming weekend, Orion will break NASA’s distance record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts — nearly 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970. And it will continue to reach its maximum distance from Earth next Monday at nearly 270,000 miles (433,000 kilometers).

The capsule will spend nearly a week in lunar orbit before returning home. A Pacific splashdown is scheduled 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 on Orion for a trip around the moon as early as 2024.

Mission Director Mike Sarafin was pleased with the mission’s progress, giving it a “cautiously optimistic A-plus” so far.

The Space Launch System rocket — the most powerful ever built by NASA — performed extremely well in its debut, Sarafin told reporters. He said teams are dealing with two problems that require solutions — one involving navigation star trackers, the other the power system,

However, the 322-foot (98-meter) rocket caused more damage than expected at the Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad. The force from the 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of lift was so great that it tore off the elevator’s blast doors, rendering it unusable.

Sarafin said the pad damage will be repaired well in advance of the next launch.

(AP)

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