CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s Orion capsule reached the moon Monday, whipped around the other side and zoomed across the lunar surface on its way to a record-breaking orbit carrying astronaut test dummies.
It’s 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.
The 80-mile approach occurred when the crew capsule and its three wired puppets were on the far side of the moon. Due to a half-hour communications blackout, flight controllers in Houston didn’t know if the critical engine firing was going well until the capsule emerged from behind the moon, 232,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) from Earth.
The capsule’s cameras sent back an image of the world – a small blue sphere surrounded by darkness.
“Our light blue dot and its 8 billion human inhabitants are now coming into view,” said Mission Control commentator Sandra Jones.
The capsule accelerated well above 5,000 mph (8,000 kph) when it regained radio contact, NASA said. Less than an hour later, Orion hovered over Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969.
“This is one of those days that you think about and talk about for a long time,” flight director Zeb Scoville said.
Earlier in the morning, the moon loomed larger and larger in the backbeamed video as the capsule covered the last few thousand miles since detonating from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center atop the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA.
Orion had to orbit around the moon to pick up enough speed to enter the vast, lopsided lunar orbit. Flight controllers evaluated the backflow data to determine if the engine launch proceeded as planned. Another firing will place the capsule in that elongated orbit on Friday.
This coming weekend, Orion will shatter 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. 270,000 miles (433,000 kilometers).
The capsule will spend nearly a week in lunar orbit before heading home. A landing in the Pacific Ocean is scheduled for December 11.
Orion has no lunar lander; a landing won’t come until NASA astronauts try to make a lunar landing with SpaceX’s Starship in 2025. Before then, astronauts will tether Orion for a ride around the moon as early as 2024.
NASA executives were delighted with the mission’s progress. The Space Launch System rocket performed extremely well on its debut, they told reporters late last week.
However, the 322-foot (98-meter) rocket caused more damage than expected at the Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad. The force of the 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of launch thrust was so great that it ruptured the elevator blast doors.
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.