Six days after NASA’s Orion spacecraft launched on a journey to the moon, the gumdrop-shaped capsule reached its destination on Monday. The spacecraft hovered 81 miles above the lunar surface, passing by the historic Tranquility Base – the site of the Apollo 11 moon landing – and in the history books.
With crisp images of the Earth and moon, the capsule completed its flyby and one of the mission’s two largest maneuvers, marking a milestone: traveling more than 40,000 miles beyond the far side of the moon. When the spacecraft reaches this distance, it will break a record set by the Apollo 13 crew and reach the greatest distance ever traveled by a human-rated spacecraft.
“We’re preparing to orbit beyond the Moon,” Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission manager, said at a news conference Monday. “Called a distant retrograde orbit, today was our biggest propulsive event of the mission to get us ready for that.”
Sarafin said the maneuver is the first of two and entering this unique orbit will allow the team to put the Orion spacecraft to the test.
“It’s a great mission to pressurize the system and reduce risk,” he said.
Monday’s flyby was the closest Orion will be to the moon as it enters far retrograde orbit, meaning the spacecraft will circle the moon in the opposite direction of the moon’s orbit around Earth. Sarafin said this will test not only the propulsion system, as it requires major propulsion maneuvers, but also the communications system on the spacecraft. At its furthest 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 and establish a lunar orbit presence in the coming years. It’s also a critical step toward one day reaching the agency’s ultimate goal of putting boots on Mars.
The Orion capsule launched atop NASA’s mega moon rocket, the Space Launch System (or SLS). Plagued by cost overruns and frequent delays, some were skeptical that SLS would ever get off the ground. Last week, the behemoth catapulted the Orion capsule into space and on its way to the moon.
With that flight, the rocket cemented itself as the most powerful rocket in operation to achieve orbit, outperforming the Saturn V rocket, which launched the Apollo moon missions in the 1960s and 1970s, by 15 percent. Sarafin described the launch as “dazzling,” revealing that the rocket, solid rocket boosters, team and Orion spacecraft have so far exceeded all expectations.
“Everyone in mission control is giddy,” said Judd Freiling, flight director of Artemis 1 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center at the briefing. “People are just amazed; flight controllers are amazed at the amazing videos and images coming in from Orion.”
Those images include 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 also beamed back views of Earth in the distance, appearing as a small blue marble against the blackness of space, seemingly in homage to Carl Sagan and the famous light blue dot image captured by the Voyager 1 spacecraft.
“We were like kids in a candy store, as soon as the images came in there was smiles all over the board,” said Sarafin. “This mission is a dream for many people within the agency and it’s a great day and a great achievement.”
Once its round past the moon is complete, Orion will return to Earth, where it will splash into the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11. The landing, like the rest of the mission, will be a practice run for future missions that will carry astronauts. As such, Orion is equipped with scientific instruments that will provide a plethora of data to help engineers understand how astronauts will be affected by future flights. This includes radiation sensors and much more.
“This flight isn’t just about flying flight hardware, it’s about being as safe as possible.” Sarafin said. “Flight safety for our astronauts is paramount.”