A NASA capsule flies over the moon, the last big step before lunar orbit

CAPE CANAVAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s Orion capsule reached the moon Monday, circling the far side and knocking on the lunar surface on its way to a record-breaking orbit with test dummies sitting for the astronauts.

It’s the first time a moon capsule has visited since NASA’s Apollo program 50 years ago, and marks a major milestone in the $4.1 billion test flight that began last Wednesday.

Video of the looming Moon and our pale blue planet more than 230,000 miles (370,000 km) away has left workers “circling” at Johnson Space Center in Houston, home to Mission Control, according to Flight Director Judd Freleng. Even the flight controllers themselves were “completely dumbfounded”.

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

The close approach occurred at 81 miles (130 kilometers) when the crew capsule and its three wire dummies were on the far side of the Moon. Because of a half-hour communications blackout, flight controllers in Houston didn’t know if the critical engine launch was going well until the capsule exited from behind the moon. The capsule’s cameras sent back an image of Earth – a small blue dot surrounded by black.

NASA said the capsule accelerated to more than 5,000 mph (8,000 kph) as it regained radio contact. Less than an hour later, Orion flew over Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969. There were no photos of the site because the runway was in the dark, but managers promised to try to take photos on the return flight. Within two weeks.

Orion needed to slingshot around the moon to pick up enough speed to enter the sweeping, lopsided lunar orbit. Another engine fire will put the capsule into that orbit on Friday.

This coming weekend, Orion will smash the NASA distance record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts — roughly 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970. And it will continue, reaching its furthest distance from Earth on the day Next Monday approximately 270,000 miles (433,000 km).

The capsule will spend approximately a week in orbit around the Moon, before returning home. There is a splash in the Pacific Ocean scheduled for December 11th.

Orion does not have a lunar lander. The landing won’t come until NASA astronauts attempt to land on the moon in 2025 using the SpaceX spacecraft. Before that, astronauts will carry Orion on a trip around the moon as early as 2024.

Mission Director Mike Saravin was pleased with the mission’s progress, giving 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 very well in its infancy. He said the teams are dealing with two issues that require workarounds – one related to navigational star trackers, the other related to the power system,

The 322-foot (98 m) rocket caused more damage than expected, to the Kennedy Space Center launch pad. The force generated by the 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of takeoff thrust was so great that it tore open the elevator’s blast doors, rendering them unusable.

Sarafin said the damage to the platform would be repaired long before the next launch.

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

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