NASA Sets Sights on Crewed Moon Missions After Orion Capsule’s Return to Earth

Next, the space agency wants to send astronauts to orbit—and land on—the moon

The Orion spacecraft sits in the Pacific Ocean
The Orion spacecraft after landing in the Pacific Ocean. NASA / James M. Blair

After spending 25.5 days in space and orbiting the moon, NASA’s uncrewed Orion spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 12:40 p.m. Eastern time Sunday.

The successful landing marks the end of the Artemis 1 test flight, paving the way for crewed moon missions. NASA will now assess data from Orion’s trip and make preparations for future flights, per the Washington Post’s Christian Davenport.

“With splashdown we have successfully operated Orion in the deep space environment, where it exceeded our expectations, and demonstrated that Orion can withstand the extreme conditions of returning through Earth’s atmosphere from lunar velocities,” Mike Sarafin, Artemis 1 mission manager, says in a statement.

“This is an extraordinary day,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said Sunday, per NBC News’ Denise Chow. “It’s historic because we are now going back into space, into deep space, with a new generation.”

Within a few years, NASA plans to send a crewed spacecraft to orbit the moon with its Artemis 2 mission, and after that, Artemis 3 is slated to land two astronauts on the moon’s south pole for about a week, according to the New York Times Kenneth Chang.

The Artemis 1 mission experienced years of delays, per the Times. A scheduled August launch did not occur due to technical issues, while Hurricanes Ian and Nicole prevented planned September and November launches, per’s Mike Wall.

But Orion successfully rocketed into space on November 16. Over the next 25.5 days, the spacecraft traveled more than 1.4 million miles and performed two lunar flybys, according to NASA. While orbiting the moon, the spacecraft reached a distance close to 270,000 miles from Earth—the farthest that any craft meant for human occupants has ever gone.

Sunday’s reentry tested how the spacecraft and future passengers would fare in intense conditions, per NBC News. Orion reached Earth’s atmosphere traveling at nearly 25,000 miles per hour—32 times the speed of sound—and its heat shield faced temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

As it returned, Orion performed a “skip maneuver,” in which it bounced off the upper layers of air in Earth’s atmosphere, per The maneuver allowed the spacecraft to land more precisely. Doing this on upcoming crewed missions would reduce the amount of force that passengers experience, per CNN’s Jackie Wattles.

The spacecraft landed near Mexico’s Baja California and spent six hours in the ocean as scientists ran tests and collected data. Orion carried mannequins that NASA will study to better understand radiation exposure and other conditions that astronauts might endure.

The future crewed missions will depend on equipment developed by private companies. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is designing the lander that will take Artemis 3’s astronauts from the spacecraft to the moon’s surface, per the Times. SpaceX has yet to conduct a test launch of the lander, per the publication.

The company Axiom Space is designing space suits that astronauts can wear while on the moon, writes Ars Technica’s Eric Berger. And NASA said Friday that it awarded Boeing a $3.2 billion contract to continue building the main parts of rockets for future Artemis program flights.

Meanwhile, the construction of the Orion capsule that will hold Artemis 2’s crew is halfway done, and the European company Airbus has completed the service module that will power Orion, according to the Times.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.