NASA’s capsule buzzes onto the moon, the last big step before lunar orbit
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s Orion capsule reached the moon Monday, circling the far side and buzzing the lunar surface on its way to a record-breaking orbit with test dummies sitting in place of astronauts.
It is the first time a capsule has visited the moon since NASA’s Apollo program 50 years ago and represents a huge 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 kilometers) in the distance left workers “dizzy” at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where mission control is located, according to Flight Director Judd Freeling. Even the air traffic controllers themselves were “completely amazed”.
“Just smiles all around,” said Orion Program Manager Howard Hu.
The close approach of 81 miles (130 kilometers) occurred when the crew capsule and its three hardwired dummies were on the far side of the moon. Because of a half-hour communication blackout, flight controllers in Houston didn’t know if the critical engine ignition was going well until the capsule appeared from behind the moon. The capsule’s cameras sent back a picture of Earth – a small blue dot surrounded by blackness.
The capsule was accelerating well in excess of 5,000 miles per hour (8,000 km/h) when it regained radio contact, NASA said. Less than an hour later, Orion soared over Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969. There were no photos of the site because the pass was in darkness, but managers promised to try to take photos at the return flight in two weeks.
Orion had to slingshot around the Moon to gain enough speed to enter the wide, inclined lunar orbit. Another thruster will put the capsule into that orbit on Friday.
This coming weekend, Orion will break NASA’s distance record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts – nearly 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970. And it will continue, reaching its maximum distance from Earth next Monday at almost 270,000 miles (433,000 kilometers).
The capsule will spend nearly a week in lunar orbit before heading home. The Pacific is scheduled for December 11th.
Orion has no lunar lander; touchdown won’t happen until NASA astronauts attempt a moon landing in 2025 with SpaceX’s Starship. Before that, astronauts will dock in Orion for a tour of the moon as early as 2024.
Mission Manager Mike Sarafin was delighted with the mission’s progress, giving it a “cautiously optimistic A-plus” so far.
The Space Launch System rocket — the most powerful ever built by NASA — performed exceptionally well in its debut, Sarafin told reporters. He said the teams are dealing with two problems that require workarounds — one involving the navigation star trackers, the other the power system,
However, the 322-foot (98-meter) rocket caused more damage than expected on the Kennedy Space Center launch pad. The force of the 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of liftoff thrust was so great that it tore open the elevator’s blast doors, rendering it unusable.
Sarafin said the damage to the pad would be repaired in plenty of time before the next launch.
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