NASA's Artemis I mission Orion capsule splashes down after Moon trip

Riding on board the Artemis mission was Commander "Moonikin" Campos and two manikin torsoes, Zohar and Helga, courtesy of the Israel Space Agency and Germany's DLR, respectively.

NASA's Orion Capsule is drawn to the well deck of the USS Portland after it splashed down following a successful uncrewed Artemis I Moon Mission on December 11, 2022 in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. (photo credit: MARIO TAMA/POOL VIA REUTERS)
NASA's Orion Capsule is drawn to the well deck of the USS Portland after it splashed down following a successful uncrewed Artemis I Moon Mission on December 11, 2022 in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, Mexico.
(photo credit: MARIO TAMA/POOL VIA REUTERS)

NASA's Orion capsule barreled through Earth's atmosphere and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday after making an uncrewed voyage around the moon, winding up the inaugural mission of the US agency's new Artemis lunar program 50 years to the day after Apollo's final moon landing.

The gumdrop-shaped Orion capsule, carrying a simulated crew of three mannequins wired with sensors, plunked down in the ocean at 9:40 a.m. PST (1740 GMT) off Mexico's Baja California peninsula, demonstrating a high-stakes homecoming before NASA flies its first crew of Artemis astronauts around the moon in the next few years.

"This was a challenging mission, and this is what mission success looks like," NASA's Artemis I mission manager Mike Sarafin told reporters after splashdown, adding that his team didn't immediately notice any issues with Orion's return from space.

"From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the latest chapter of NASA's journey to the moon comes to a close. Orion, back on Earth."

Rob Navias

"From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the latest chapter of NASA's journey to the moon comes to a close. Orion, back on Earth," said Rob Navias, a NASA commentator speaking on a live stream.

Video feeds are displayed after NASA's Orion Capsule was brought into the well deck of the USS Portland after it splashed down following a successful uncrewed Artemis I Moon Mission on December 11, 2022 seen from aboard the Portland in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. (credit: MARIO TAMA/POOL VIA REUTERS)Video feeds are displayed after NASA's Orion Capsule was brought into the well deck of the USS Portland after it splashed down following a successful uncrewed Artemis I Moon Mission on December 11, 2022 seen from aboard the Portland in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. (credit: MARIO TAMA/POOL VIA REUTERS)

Riding on board the Artemis mission is Commander "Moonikin" Campos and the two manikin torsoes, Zohar and Helga, courtesy of the Israel Space Agency and Germany's DLR respectively.

Campos is meant to test the Orion Crew Survival System and make sure the Orion spacecraft is safe for humans. Zohar and Helga, however, are taking part in the Matroshka AstroRad Radiation Experiment (MARE), which will provide data on radiation levels in lunar missions as well as test the usability of the AstroRad vests.

The end of Orion's 25-day mission

Orion was nearing the end of its 25-day mission less than a week after passing about 79 miles (127 km) above the moon in a lunar fly-by and about two weeks after reaching its farthest point in space, nearly 270,000 miles (434,500 km) from Earth.

After jettisoning the service module housing its main rocket system, the capsule was expected to re-enter Earth's atmosphere at 24,500 miles per hour (39,400 kph) - more than 30 times the speed of sound - for a fiery, 20-minute plunge to the ocean.

Orion blasted off on Nov. 16 from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, atop NASA's towering next-generation Space Launch System (SLS), now the world's most powerful rocket and the biggest NASA has built since the Saturn V of the Apollo era.

 NASA's next-generation moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion crew capsule, lifts off from launch complex 39-B on the unmanned Artemis 1 mission to the moon, seen from Sebastian, Florida, US, November 16, 2022. (credit: Joe Rimkus Jr./Reuters) NASA's next-generation moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion crew capsule, lifts off from launch complex 39-B on the unmanned Artemis 1 mission to the moon, seen from Sebastian, Florida, US, November 16, 2022. (credit: Joe Rimkus Jr./Reuters)

The debut SLS-Orion voyage kicked off Apollo's successor program, Artemis, aimed at returning astronauts to the lunar surface this decade and establishing a sustainable base there as a stepping stone to future human exploration of Mars.

By coincidence, the return to Earth of Artemis I unfolded on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 17 moon landing of Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt on Dec. 11, 1972. They were the last of 12 NASA astronauts to walk on the moon during a total of six Apollo missions starting in 1969.

Hitting a penny with a football

Re-entry marks the single most critical phase of Orion's journey, testing whether its newly designed heat shield will withstand atmospheric friction expected to raise temperatures outside the capsule to nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius).

"It is our priority-one objective," NASA's Artemis I mission manager Mike Sarafin said at a briefing last week. "There is no arc-jet or aerothermal facility here on Earth capable of replicating hypersonic re-entry with a heat shield of this size."

It will also test the advanced guidance and thruster systems used to steer the capsule from the moon to its proper re-entry point and through descent, maintaining the spacecraft at just the right angle to avoid burning up.

"It's essentially like throwing a football 300 yards and hitting a penny," Eric Coffman, Orion propulsion senior manager at Lockheed Martin Corp LMT.N, which built Orion under contract with NASA, told Reuters.

An internal navigation and control system commands 12 on-board thrusters, fixed in recessed positions along the base of the capsule, to fire bursts of propellant as needed to keep the capsule oriented correctly and on course, he said.

 News media members wait and NASA's next-generation moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) , with its Orion crew capsule on top, sits on the pad before the launch of the Artemis I mission was scrubbed, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, US, August 29, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/Thom Baur) News media members wait and NASA's next-generation moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) , with its Orion crew capsule on top, sits on the pad before the launch of the Artemis I mission was scrubbed, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, US, August 29, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/Thom Baur)

Hotter, faster

The heat, speed and forces exerted on Orion on its return from the moon will exceed those endured by spacecraft making more routine descents from the International Space Station (ISS) or other flights from low-Earth orbit.

In yet another new twist, Orion is programmed to employ a novel "skip entry" descent in which the capsule briefly dips into the top of the atmosphere, flies back out and re-enters - a braking maneuver that also provides more control in steering the vehicle closer to its intended splashdown target.

NASA officials have stressed the experimental nature of the Artemis I mission, marking the first launch of the Boeing Co BA.N-built SLS and the first combined with Orion, which previously flew a brief two-orbit test launched on a smaller Delta IV rocket in 2014.

Though the capsule encountered some unexpected communication blackouts and an electrical issue during its voyage around the moon, NASA has given high marks to the performance of both SLS and Orion so far, boasting that they exceeded the US space agency's expectations.

"This has been an extraordinarily successful mission," NASA administrator Bill Nelson told reporters. 

If Artemis I is deemed a success, a crewed Artemis II flight around the moon and back could come as early as 2024, followed within a few more years by the program's first lunar landing of astronauts, one of them a woman, with Artemis III.

NASA considered re-entry the single most critical phase of Orion's journey, testing whether its newly designed heat shield can withstand atmospheric friction and safely protect astronauts that would be on board.

"It is our priority-one objective," Sarafin said at a briefing last week. "There is no arc-jet or aerothermal facility here on Earth capable of replicating hypersonic re-entry with a heat shield of this size."

NASA officials have stressed the experimental nature of the Artemis I mission, marking the first launch of the Boeing Co-built SLS and the first combined with Orion, which previously flew a brief two-orbit test launched on a smaller Delta IV rocket in 2014. The capsule was built by Lockheed Martin.

Compared with Apollo, born of the Cold War-era US-Soviet space race, Artemis is more science-driven and broad-based, enlisting commercial partners such as Elon Musk's SpaceX and the space agencies of Europe, Canada, and Japan.

It also marks a major turning point for NASA, redirecting its human spaceflight program beyond low-Earth orbit after decades focused on space shuttles and the ISS.

Orion's European Space Agency-supplied service module, a housing for its propulsion system that was jettisoned before the capsule's descent into Earth's atmosphere, "performed beautifully," ESA’s mission manager Philippe Deloo said in a statement.

"This is a great day not only for America, but it's a great day for all of our international partners - that's the difference from 50 years ago," Nelson said.

Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report