NASA via AP
CAPE CANAVAL, Fla. — NASA’s Orion capsule reached the moon Monday, circling the far side and rocking 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.
The close approach occurred at 81 miles when the crew capsule and its three wire dummies were on the far side of the Moon. Due to a half-hour communications blackout, flight controllers in Houston didn’t know if a critical engine launch was going well until the capsule exited from behind the Moon, 232,000 miles from Earth.
The capsule’s cameras returned an image of the world – a small blue ball surrounded by black.
“Our pale blue dot and its 8 billion inhabitants are now on the horizon,” said Mission Control commentator Sandra Jones.
NASA said the capsule accelerated to more than 5,000 miles per hour 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.
“This is one of those days that you’ve been thinking about and talking about for a very long time,” said flight director Zeb Scoville.
Earlier in the morning, the Moon appeared larger than ever in backwards broadcast video as the capsule closed in a few thousand miles since blasting off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, atop the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built.
Orion needed to slingshot around the moon to pick up enough speed to enter the sweeping, lopsided lunar orbit. Flight controllers evaluated the streaming data, to determine if the engine launch proceeded as planned. Another firing will put the capsule into that extended orbit on Friday.
This coming weekend, Orion will smash the NASA distance record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts—nearly 250,000 miles from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970. And it will continue, reaching its farthest distance from Earth next Monday at nearly 270,000 Mile.
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.
NASA managers were pleased with the mission’s progress. They told reporters late last week that the Space Launch System rocket performed very well on its debut.
The 322-foot rocket caused more damage than expected, to the Kennedy Space Center launch pad. The force from the 8.8 million pounds of thrust was so great that it tore the blast doors of the elevator.
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