NASA capsule hums moon, last big step for lunar orbit

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s Orion capsule reached the moon Monday, whipped around the other side and zoomed across the lunar surface on its way to a record-breaking orbit carrying astronaut test dummies.

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 last Wednesday.

Video of the looming moon and our pale blue planet more than 140,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) away left workers “giddy” at Houston’s Johnson Space Center, home of Mission Control, according to flight director Judd Frieling. Even the flight controllers themselves were “absolutely stunned”.

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

The 80-mile approach occurred when the crew capsule and its three wired puppets 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 firing was going well until the capsule emerged from behind the moon. The capsule’s cameras returned a picture of Earth — a small blue dot surrounded by blackness.

The capsule accelerated well above 5,000 mph (8,000 kph) 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 location because the pass was in darkness, but managers promised to take photos on the return trip in two weeks.

Orion had to orbit around the moon to pick up enough speed to enter the vast, lopsided lunar orbit. A new engine will place the capsule in that orbit on Friday.

This coming weekend, Orion will shatter 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. 270,000 miles (433,000 kilometers).

The capsule will spend nearly a week in lunar orbit before heading home. A landing in the Pacific Ocean is scheduled for December 11.

Orion has no lunar lander; a landing won’t come until NASA astronauts try to make a lunar landing with SpaceX’s Starship in 2025. Before then, astronauts will tether Orion for a ride around the moon as early as 2024.

Mission manager Mike Sarafin was delighted with the progress of the mission, giving it a “cautiously optimistic A-plus” so far.

The Space Launch System rocket — the most powerful ever built by NASA — performed extremely well on its debut, Sarafin told reporters. He said teams are facing two problems that require workarounds: one concerns the navigational 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 of the 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of launch thrust was so great that it ruptured the elevator’s blast doors, rendering it useless.

Sarafin said the pad damage will be repaired well before the next launch.

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The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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