Six days after NASA’s Orion spacecraft launched on a journey to the moon, the gumdrop-shaped capsule reached its destination on Monday. At 81 miles above the lunar surface, the spacecraft passed over the historic Tranquility Base — the site of the Apollo 11 lunar landing — and into the history books.
Capturing views of the Earth and Moon, the capsule completed its flyby and one of its two biggest maneuvers of the mission, hitting a record: traveling more than 40,000 miles away from the far side of the Moon. When the spacecraft reaches this distance, it will break the record set by the Apollo 13 crew and reach the furthest distance traveled by a human-class spacecraft.
“We’re in the process of preparing to orbit beyond the moon,” Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission manager, said during a news conference Monday. “It was called a distant retrograde orbit, and today was our biggest push event on the mission to prepare us for that.”
The maneuver is the first of two, Sarafin said, and by entering this unique orbit, it allows the team to put the Orion spacecraft through its paces.
“It’s a great job to put pressure on the system and reduce the risks,” he said.
Monday’s flyby was the closest to Orion as it enters a distant retrograde orbit, which means the spacecraft will orbit the moon in the opposite direction that the moon orbits Earth. This will test not only the propulsion system because it requires large propulsion maneuvers, Sarafin said, but also the spacecraft’s communications system. At its farthest point, the spacecraft will be 268,000 miles from Earth.
This flight is part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to send astronauts to the lunar surface in the coming years and establish a presence in lunar orbit. It’s also an important step towards one day achieving the agency’s ultimate goal of putting shoes on Mars.
The Orion capsule was launched atop NASA’s giant moon rocket, the Space Launch System (or SLS). Because of cost overruns and numerous delays, some were skeptical if the SLS would ever get off the ground. Last week, Cyclops hopped its Orion capsule into space and on a path to the moon.
With that flight, the rocket established itself as the most powerful operational rocket to reach orbit, outperforming the Saturn V, which launched the Apollo missions to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s, by 15 percent. Sarafin called the launch “surprising,” revealing that the rocket, solid rocket boosters, team, and Orion spacecraft have so far exceeded all expectations.
“Everyone in Mission Control is giddy,” Judd Freiling, Artemis 1 flight manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center said during the news conference. “People are just amazed. Flight controllers are amazed at the amazing videos and photos coming from Orion.”
Those images included some stunning views of Orion as it passed by the Moon, and a shot of the Moon’s south pole where future Artemis missions are expected to land. Orion has also broadcast views of Earth in the distance, appearing as a tiny blue marble against the blackness of space, apparently as a homage to Carl Sagan and the famous pale blue dot image taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft.
“We were like kids in a candy store, as soon as the pictures came out, there were smiles across the board,” Sarafin said. “This mission is a dream for many people across the agency and it is a huge day and a huge accomplishment.”
Once it completes its orbit after the Moon has passed, Orion will return to Earth, where it will touch down in the Pacific Ocean on December 11th. The landing, just like the rest of the mission, will serve as training for future missions that will carry the astronauts. As such, Orion is equipped with scientific instruments that will provide a wealth of data to help engineers understand how astronauts will be affected by future flights. This includes radiation sensors and many more.
“This flight isn’t just about flying gear, it’s about being as safe as we can be.” two cashiers said. “Flight safety for our astronauts is paramount.”