NASA’s Orion space capsule reached the moon on Monday, November 21, 2022 bustling the lunar surface on its way to a record-breaking orbit with test dummies sitting in for astronauts.
It is 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 last week Wednesday.
According to flight director, Judd Frieling, the video of the looming moon and our pale blue planet more than 230,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) in the distance left workers “giddy” at Houston’s Johnson Space Center; home to Mission Control. Even the flight controllers themselves were “absolutely astounded.”
Orion program manager, Howard Hu remarked, “Just smiles across the board.”
The close approach of 81 miles (130 kilometers) occurred as the crew capsule and its three wired-up dummies were on the far side of the moon.
Due to a half-hour communication blackout, flight controllers in Houston did not know if the 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 dot surrounded by blackness.
The capsule accelerated well beyond 5,000 mph (8,000 kph) as it regained radio contact, NASA said. Less than an hour later, Orion soared above Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969.
There were no pictures of the site because the pass was in darkness, but managers promised to try for pictures on the return flight in two weeks.
Orion needed to slingshot around the moon to pick up enough speed to enter the sweeping, lopsided lunar orbit. Another engine firing will place the capsule in that orbit.
This coming weekend, Orion will break NASA’s distance record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts which is nearly 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970.
It will keep going, reaching a maximum distance from Earth next Monday at nearly 270,000 miles (433,000 kilometers).
The capsule will spend close to a week in lunar orbit, before heading towards Earth. A Pacific splashdown is planned for December 11, 2022.
Orion has no lunar lander so a touchdown won’t take place 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.
Mission Manager Expresses Delight With Mission’s Progress
Mission manager, Mike Sarafin, was delighted with the progress of the mission, giving it a “cautiously optimistic A-plus” so far.
Sarafin disclosed that the Space Launch System rocket which is the most powerful ever built by NASA performed exceedingly well in its debut. He further stated that the teams are dealing with two issues that need workarounds; one involving the navigational star trackers, the other issue is the power system.
The 322-foot (98-meter) rocket caused more damage than expected. However, the damage occurred at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad.
The force from the 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of liftoff thrust was so intense that it tore off the blast doors of the elevator, leaving it unusable.
Mike Sarafin assured that the pad damage will be repaired in plenty of time before the next launch.