NASA completed a significant step Sunday toward returning astronauts to the lunar surface with the successful completion of a test mission that sent a capsule designed for human spaceflight to orbit the moon and return safely to Earth.
Orion’s homecoming came 50 years to the day after the Apollo 17 spacecraft landing on the lunar surface in 1972 at the Taurus-Littrow valley, the last human mission to the moon. And it heralded, the space agency said, a series of upcoming missions that are to be piloted by a new generation of NASA astronauts as part of the Artemis program.
The flight was delayed repeatedly by technical problems with the massive Space Launch System rocket and the spacecraft. But the 26-day, 1.4 million-mile mission went “exceedingly well,” NASA officials said, from the launch on Nov. 16 to flybys that brought Orion within about 80 miles of the lunar surface and directly over the Apollo 11 landing site at Tranquility Base.
“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’s Rob Navias said during the agency’s live broadcast of the event.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said it was “historic because we are now going back to space, to deep space, with a new generation.” The successful mission augurs a new era, he added, “one that marks new technology, a whole new breed of astronauts, and a vision of the future.”
“This is what mission success looks like, folks,” Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis I mission manager, said at an afternoon news conference. “This was a challenging mission. … We now have a foundational deep space transportation system. And while we haven’t looked at all the data that we’ve acquired, we will do that over the coming days and weeks.”
Now that the spacecraft is safely home, NASA will immediately begin to assess the data gathered on the flight and prepare for the Artemis II mission — which would put a crew of astronauts on the spacecraft for another trip in orbit around the moon. NASA hopes that mission would come as early as 2024, with a lunar landing to come as early as 2025 or 2026. That would be the first time people walk on the moon since the last of the Apollo missions.
NASA has yet to name the crews assigned to those flights — that would come in early 2023, said Vanessa Wyche, the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. But its astronaut corps has already shifted its training to focus on Orion and lunar flights, after spending decades focusing solely on missions to the International Space Station.
One of the most significant tests for the Orion spacecraft came Sunday morning when it hit Earth’s atmosphere traveling at nearly 25,000 mph, 32 times the speed of sound. The friction generated extreme temperatures — 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit — that stressed the capsule’s heat shield. A series of parachutes then deployed, delivering the spacecraft to the ocean at under 20 mph, where a Navy recovery ship, the USS Portland, and several small boats and helicopters were waiting to greet it.
Nelson said the heat shield performed “beautifully,” and Navias said the landing was “textbook.”
The successful mission gives NASA some momentum after years of stagnation in its human spaceflight program. After it retired the space shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA was forced to rely on Russia to send its astronauts to the space station. SpaceX finally started human spaceflight missions for NASA in 2020, and Boeing, the other company contracted for flights to the ISS, hopes to send its first crew there next year.
But now, for the first time in decades, NASA has another destination for its astronauts — the moon — and a program, Artemis, that has survived subsequent presidential administrations, to get them there.
The program, which vows to land the first woman and person of color on the moon, was born under the Trump administration and carried on by the Biden White House. That continuity stands in stark contrast to decades of presidential administrations pointing NASA’s human space exploration directorate to different goals in the solar system, from the moon, to Mars, an asteroid, and back to the moon again.
The question now is: Can NASA maintain the program’s momentum and keep Congress funding it? Support for spaceflight programs can be fickle — even the Apollo missions quickly began to lose support from Congress and the public’s interest. And while NASA might be celebrating the Artemis I as a triumph today, that enthusiasm could easily fade by the time Artemis II is ready to fly in 2024.
In the post-flight news conference, Nelson, a former U.S. senator from Florida, said he is confident the excitement would continue to build with the public, particularly as NASA names the crew for the next mission. Congress is also invested in the program, he said. “I am not worried about the support from the Congress,” he said. “That support is enduring.”
While that remains to be seen, NASA was celebrating the first step toward returning astronauts to the moon and fulfilling the pledge of Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, who vowed, as he departed the moon for Earth, “We shall return.”
Robert Cabana, NASA’s associate administrator and a former astronaut, said that he wished Cernan “were alive and could have seen this mission. It would have meant a lot to him.”