Artemis I Orion capsule splashes down after 25-day moon mission
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December 11, 2022
— A NASA spacecraft has landed from the moon for the time since the Apollo missions 50 years ago.
The uncrewed Orion capsule descended to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Guadalupe Island, west of the Baja California Peninsula, on Sunday (Dec. 11). The 12:40 p.m. EST (1740 GMT) landing marked the end of the nearly month-long Artemis I mission, a test flight that was aimed at proving that the Orion is ready to fly with astronauts.
"Splashdown," said Rob Navias, NASA commentator, from inside Mission Control in Houston. "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."
NASA and U.S. Navy teams on the USS Portland, an amphibious transport dock ship, assisted by the littoral combat ship USS Montgomery, were staged near the splashdown point to recover the Orion and transport it to the shore at Naval Base San Diego in California.
"The splashdown of the Orion spacecraft — which occurred 50 years to the day of the Apollo 17 moon landing — is the crowning achievement of Artemis I. This flight test is a major step forward in the Artemis Generation of lunar exploration," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.
Unlike the Apollo moon missions, which performed a direct descent into Earth's atmosphere, the Artemis I Orion conducted what is called a "skip entry." The process began at 12 p.m. EST (1700 GMT), when the service module provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) separated from the Orion crew module to be discarded over the Pacific Ocean.
Twenty minutes later, the Orion reached "entry interface," encountering the first traces of the upper atmosphere and beginning its first dip back to Earth as it was traveling 25,000 mph (40,000 kph). The spacecraft reached its peak heating of about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) before using its the lift capability of its capsule design to "skip" back out of the atmosphere, much like a stone skips across a lake.
The skip maneuver lowered the stresses put on the spacecraft and allowed NASA to target a specific landing site, rather than having to stage Navy ships across a wider stretch of the ocean as was done during Apollo.
On its second reentry, the Orion continued down towards the water, deploying its forward bay cover to expose its parachutes at about 35,000 feet (10,700 m). At 12:36 p.m. EST (1736 GMT), two drogue chutes deployed, followed by three pilot chutes and then the three, 116-foot diameter (35-m) mains at about 5,300 feet (1,600 m) two minutes before landing.
Flight controllers then commanded Orion to roll into the proper angle relative to the wind before hitting the water. Once down, the capsule deployed balloons to keep it upright in the ocean.
NASA still has several more objectives to conduct even though the flight portion of the mission is over. The Orion was expected to stay in the water for two hours, as engineers record how the heat generated during reentry soaks into and affects the spacecraft's interior cabin temperature.
Recovery team members will also monitor the signal from a beacon on the Orion Crew Survival System (OCCS) suit worn by "Commander Moonikin Campos" — an instrumented manikin flown aboard the Orion — to see it can be distinguished from the capsule's own beacon by satellite.
Teams had planned to attempt recovering the main parachutes and forward cover but the hardware sank before it could be reached. Divers will collect above and below water imagery of the condition of Orion's heat shield prior to the spacecraft being brought aboard the Portland. Engineers will continue collecting imagery once the capsule is recovered for use in analyzing the performance of the thermal protection system.
The Orion is expected to arrive back on shore on Monday.
Mission managers reported working only a few problems during the 25-day Artemis I mission, including an unexpected interference by thruster plumes with the Orion's star trackers and an issue with a power control and distribution unit inexplicably shutting off power channels when not commanded to do so. These were minor concerns though, and did not affect the mission achieving its primary goals.
"This has been a phenomenal mission thus far. If you asked me to grade it, I'd give us an A+," Cathy Koerner, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, said in a televised NASA interview about two hours before the landing. "It's gone so well that we were actually able to add tests during the mission that helped expand the the envelope that we're going to be able to use to operate the spacecraft once we have crew on board."
Over the next few weeks and months, technicians at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida will unpack Orion of its cargo — including Moonikin Campos, the Artemis I official flight kit and a spacesuited Snoopy doll that served as a zero-g indicator, prior to engineers disassembling the capsule's interior hardware, in part for its reuse. Eight avionics boxes and the seat in which the manikin was strapped in will be re-flown on Artemis II.
As currently planned, the Artemis II mission will launch in late 2024 or in 2025 with a crew of four astronauts to loop around the moon and return to Earth. That flight would then be followed by the return of astronauts to the lunar surface, with Artemis III expected to land the first woman and the next American on the moon at a site still to be chosen in the lunar south pole region.
Ultimately, NASA, together with its international and industry partners, intend to establish a sustainable presence on and around the moon to gain the experience needed before launching the first humans to Mars.
NASA's Orion spacecraft splashes down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast the Baja California Peninsula, concluding the Artemis I mission after a 25-day flight around the moon. (NASA/Kim Shiflett)
NASA's Artemis I Orion captured this photo of Earth from a camera mounted on one of its solar arrays hours before landing. (NASA TV)
NASA graphic showing the Orion spacecraft's skip entry sequence as tested for the first time on the Artemis I mission. (NASA)
NASA's Artemis I Orion spacecraft is seen after landing on Dec. 11, 2022, with the USS Portland in the distance. (NASA/James Blair)
NASA's Artemis I Orion capsule descends under its main parachutes to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11, 2022. (NASA/Kim Shiflett)
NASA's Orion spacecraft is seen after splashing down from the 25.5-day Artemis I moon mission on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022. (NASA/James M. Blair)
NASA’s Artemis I Orion spacecraft is seen being directed into the well deck of the USS Portland on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022. (NASA/Kim Shiflett)
NASA’s Orion spacecraft for the Artemis I mission is recovered inside the well deck of the USS Portland on Dec. 11, 2022. (NASA/Kim Shiflett)
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."