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Before heading to Earth, NASA's Artemis I looks at Apollo moon sites

Artemis I mission coverage presented with the support of

December 5, 2022

— With one eye on the future and the other the past, NASA's Artemis I mission flew over the historic Apollo landing sites as it began its journey back to Earth.

After spending six days in a lunar distant retrograde orbit, the Artemis I Orion spacecraft fired its main engine on Thursday (Dec. 1) to set up its second close flyby of the moon on Monday. The pass, which at its closest was 79 miles (127 km) above the lunar surface, enabled the uncrewed capsule to use the moon's gravity, in addition to another burn by its engine, to accelerate its return home.

Prior to the 11:43 a.m. EST (1643 GMT) return powered flyby burn, which took place while the Orion was on the far side of the moon, the spacecraft flew over the areas where Americans first landed on the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Unlike the mission's first close pass on Nov. 21, when the Apollo landing sites were the shadow of Earth, they were lit by the Sun on Monday.

"The face of the moon that faces Earth is what we will see lit up," Zeb Scoville, deputy chief flight director at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said during a briefing previewing the flyby on Nov. 30. "So we'll see familiar features like the 'man in the moon' perhaps and, more specifically, the craters and lava beds and mares ["seas"] that we went to and explored during the Apollo program."

Artemis I mission return trip lunar flyby. Click to enlarge video in new window. (NASA)

Although earlier U.S and international robotic probes have been able to show us the artifacts of humans on the moon, Orion's view of the Apollo landing sites was too far away and without telescopic lenses to resolve any features on the surface. While the footage was the closest taken by a human-rated spacecraft in 50 years, it was unable to show the lunar module descent stages, science packages, flags or footprints that were left behind by the Apollo astronauts.

"The part of the trajectory that is over those specific sites will be pretty far away from the moon," said Scoville. "It's actually about 6,000 miles [9,700 km] above the surface when we will be passing over some of those Apollo sites."

"We are absolutely going to be pointing cameras at those areas, but these are essentially GoPro cameras," he added. "If you imagine being in Houston and pointing a GoPro at Paris and trying to see a Volkswagen Bus there, you're not going to see it."

Orion's trajectory brought it closest to the Apollo 12 site in the "Ocean of Storms" where Charles "Pete" Conrad and Alan Bean landed in November 1969, and the Fra Mauro formation where Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell touched down in February 1971.

The flyby on Monday took place just two days shy of the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 17, the last mission to land astronauts on the moon to date. Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt landed further east than the prior five missions, setting down in the Taurus Littrow valley.

Orion's return powered flyby burn set the spacecraft on a track to arrive back at Earth on Dec. 11, the same day half a century ago that Apollo 17 touched down on the moon. The Artemis I 25-day mission will come to an end with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Assuming a successful end of the mission, the Artemis I test flight will clear the way for three NASA astronauts and a Canadian Space Agency crew member to fly on Artemis II into lunar orbit in the next two or three years. That mission will be followed by Artemis III and the first landing of a woman and next American on the moon. NASA's Artemis program is aimed at creating a sustainable presence on the lunar surface before sending the first astronauts to Mars.


The moon looms large in view, including the areas where the Apollo 12 and 14 missions landed, as NASA's Artemis I Orion spacecraft neared its return powered flyby burn on Dec. 5, 2022. (NASA TV)

Graphic showing the trajectory of the Artemis I Orion spacecraft as it performed its return powered flyby burn on Dec. 5, 2022. (NASA)

Ground track showing the path NASA's Artemis I Orion spacecraft took over the moon in relation ot the six Apollo moon landing sites on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. (NASA)

The Frau Mauro formation, where Apollo 14 landed on the moon in 1970, and Hadley Rille, where Apollo 15 touched down the following year, as seen from NASA's Artemis I Orion spacecraft on Dec. 5, 2022. (NASA TV)

collectSPACE is grateful to film and TV company Haviland Digital for supporting our Artemis I coverage. Their team has produced and supported titles such as the award-winning "Last Man on the Moon," "Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo" and "Armstrong."

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