NASA capsule sounds the moon, the last big step before lunar orbit

Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s Orion capsule reached the moon Monday, skimming the lunar surface on its way to a record-breaking orbit with test dummies sitting on it for astronauts.

It’s the first time a capsule has visited the moon since NASA’s Apollo program 50 years ago, and it represents a major milestone in the $4.1 billion test flight that began last Wednesday.

Video of the moon and our pale blue planet from 230,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) away “struck a chord” with crews at Houston’s Johnson Space Center, home of Mission Control, said flight director Judd Frayling. Even air traffic controllers were “absolutely amazed.”

“All smiles throughout,” said Orion project manager Howard Hu.

81 miles (130 kilometers) closer, because the crew’s capsule and its three wire-up dummies were on the far side of the moon. After half an hour of communication failure, flight controllers in Houston did not know whether the critical engine firing had been successful until the capsule emerged from behind the moon. The capsule’s cameras sent back an image of Earth – a tiny blue dot surrounded by blackness.

The capsule accelerated beyond 5,000 mph (8,000 kph) as it regained radio contact, NASA said. Within an hour, Orion soared above the Peace Space, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969. There were no photos of the site as the pass was dark, but the managers promised to try for pictures on the return flight. In two weeks.

Orion had to slingshot around the moon, picking up enough speed to enter a swept-back, inclined lunar orbit. Another engine launch will put the capsule into that orbit on Friday.

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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. And it will continue on, reaching its maximum distance from Earth next Monday. 270,000 miles (433,000 kilometers).

The capsule will spend a week in lunar orbit before heading home. Pacific Splashdown is scheduled for December 11th.

No Orion lunar lander; The touchdown won’t come until NASA astronauts try to land on the moon in 2025 aboard SpaceX’s Starship. Before then, astronauts will dock in Orion for a ride around the moon as early as 2024.

Mission manager Mike Sarafin was pleased with the mission’s progress, giving it a “cautiously optimistic A-plus” so far.

The Space Launch System rocket — the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA — performed very well on its launch, Sarafin told reporters. He said the teams were dealing with two issues requiring workloads — one involving navigational star trackers and the other a power system.

The 322-foot (98-meter) rocket caused more damage than expected, however, 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 off the elevator’s blast doors, rendering it unusable.

Sarafin said the pad damage will be repaired in plenty of time before the next launch.

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The Associated Press is supported by the Department of Health and Science, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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