NASA’s Orion capsule reached the moon on Monday, whipping across and buzzing the lunar surface on its way to a record-breaking orbit with seated test dummies for the astronauts.
It’s the first time a capsule has visited the Moon since NASA’s Apollo program 50 years ago and marks a milestone in the $4.1 billion test flight that began last Wednesday.
Video of the looming moon and our pale blue planet more than 230,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) away has left workers ‘stunned’ at Johnson Space Center in Houston, home to Mission Control, according to flight director Judd Frieling. Even the flight controllers themselves were “absolutely amazed”.
“Just smiles on all levels,” Orion program director Howard Hu said.
The 81-mile (130-kilometre) close approach occurred while the crew capsule and its three wired dummies were on the far side of the moon. Due to a half-hour communications blackout, flight controllers in Houston were unsure if the critical engine burn had gone well until the capsule emerged from behind the moon. The capsule’s cameras returned an image of Earth – a small blue dot outlined in black.
The capsule accelerated to well over 5,000 mph (8,000 km/h) when it regained radio contact, NASA said. Less than an hour later, Orion flew 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 the darkness, but officials promised to try to take photos during the return flyby. in two weeks.
Orion had to launch a slingshot around the moon to gain enough speed to enter the swept and unbalanced lunar orbit. Another engine fire will place the capsule into that orbit on Friday.
Next 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 go on, reaching a 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 does not have a lunar lander; a landing won’t come until NASA astronauts attempt a lunar landing in 2025 with SpaceX’s Starship. Before that, astronauts will tether to Orion for a moon tour as early as 2024.
Mission lead Mike Sarafin said he was pleased with the progress of the mission, giving it an “A-plus cautiously optimistic” so far.
The Space Launch System rocket — the most powerful NASA has ever built — performed extremely well in its early days, Sarafin told reporters. He said the teams are facing two issues that require workarounds – one involving the navigational star trackers, the other the power system.
The 322-foot (98-meter) rocket, however, caused more damage than expected on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. The force of the 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of liftoff thrust was so great that it ripped the elevator’s blast doors off, rendering it unusable.
Sarafin said the pad damage will be repaired long before the next launch.