CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) — NASA’s Orion capsule reached the moon Monday, swirling around the far side and buzzing the lunar surface as it went into a record-breaking orbit with test dummies for astronauts.
It’s the first time a capsule has visited the moon since NASA’s Apollo program 50 years ago, and it represents a major milestone in the $4.1 billion test flight that began last Wednesday.
According to flight director Judd Frieling, the video of the approaching moon and our pale blue planet more than 230,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) away left employees at the Johnson Space Center, home of Mission Control, in Houston “dizzy.” Even the flight controllers themselves were “absolutely stunned.”
“He’s just smiling,” said Howard Hu, Orion program manager.
The 81-mile (130 kilometers) close approach occurred while the crew capsule and three-wire dummy were on the far side of the moon. Due to a half-hour communications blackout, flight controllers in Houston didn’t know if the critical engine ignition was going well until the capsule emerged from behind the moon. The capsule’s cameras sent a picture of Earth – a small blue dot surrounded by darkness.
NASA said that when the capsule regained its radio link, it accelerated much more to 5,000 mph (8,000 kph). Less than an hour later, Orion glided over Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969. There were no photos of the area as the passage was dark, but the managers promised to try the photos on the return flight. In two weeks.
Orion needed to slingshot around the moon to gain enough speed to enter the large, disproportionate lunar orbit. Another engine ignition will put the capsule into that orbit on Friday.
Next weekend, Orion will break NASA’s distance record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts – about 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970. 270,000 miles (433,000 kilometers).
The capsule will spend about a week in lunar orbit before heading home. A Pacific splash is planned for December 1. 11th.
Orion has no lunar lander; A landing won’t happen until NASA astronauts attempt a moon landing with SpaceX’s Starship in 2025. Before then, astronauts will connect to Orion for a cruise around the moon as early as 2024.
Mission manager Mike Sarafin has been pleased with the mission’s progress and has given it a “cautiously optimistic A-plus” so far.
Sarafin told reporters that the Space Launch System rocket, the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA, performed exceptionally well in its debut. He said the teams were dealing with two issues that needed workarounds – one for the navigational star trackers, the other for the power system,
But the 322-foot (98-meter) rocket caused more damage than expected on the Kennedy Space Center launch pad. The 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) lift force was so great that the elevator’s explosion ripped through its doors, rendering it unusable.
Sarafin said pad damage will be amply repaired before the next launch.
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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