Six days after NASA's Orion spacecraft launched on a journey to the moon, the gumdrop-shaped capsule reached its destination on Monday. Soaring 81 miles above the lunar surface, the spacecraft passed over the historic Tranquility Base — the site of the Apollo 11 moon landing — and into the history books.
Snapping views of Earth and the moon, the capsule completed its flyby and one of its two biggest maneuvers of the mission, setting up for a record-setting milestone: traveling more than 40,000 miles beyond the far side of the moon. When the spacecraft reaches this distance, it will break a record set by the Apollo 13 crew and reach the furthest distance a human-rated spacecraft has ever traveled.
"We are setting up to orbit beyond the moon," Mike Sarafin, NASA's Artemis 1 mission manager said during a press conference on Monday. "Called a distant retrograde orbit, today was our largest propulsive event of the mission to set us up for that."
Sarafin said the maneuver is the first of two and by entering this unique orbit, it allows the team to put the Orion spacecraft through its paces.
"It's a great mission to stress the system and reduce the risk," he said.
Monday's flyby was the closest that Orion will be to the moon as it enters the distant retrograde orbit, which means the spacecraft will circle the moon in the opposite direction that the moon orbits the Earth. Sarafin said that this will not only test out the propulsion system as it requires large propulsive maneuvers, but also the communications system on the spacecraft. At its furthest point, the spacecraft will be 268,000 miles from Earth.
This flight is part of NASA's Artemis program, which aims to send astronauts to the lunar surface in the coming years and set up a presence in lunar orbit. It's also a crucial step to one day achieving the agency's ultimate goal of putting boots on Mars.
The Orion capsule launched atop NASA's mega moon rocket, the Space Launch System (or SLS). Plagued by cost overruns and many delays, some were skeptical if SLS would ever get off the ground. Last week the behemoth catapulted the Orion capsule into space and on a path to the moon.
With that flight, the rocket cemented itself as the most powerful rocket in operation to reach orbit, as it out-performed the Saturn V rocket, which launched the Apollo moon missions in the 1960s and 70s, by 15 percent. Sarafin described the launch as "eye-watering," revealing that the rocket, the solid rocket boosters, the team, and the Orion spacecraft have all exceeded every expectation so far.
"Everyone in mission control is giddy," Judd Freiling, Artemis 1 flight director at NASA's Johnson Space Center said during the news briefing. "People are just amazed; flight controllers are astounded by the great videos and images coming in from Orion."
Those images included some stunning views of Orion as it passed by the Moon, and a shot of the lunar south pole where future Artemis missions are expected to land. Orion also beamed back views of the Earth in the distance, appearing as a tiny blue marble against the blackness of space, seemingly as an homage to Carl Sagan and the famous pale blue dot image captured by the Voyager 1 spacecraft.
"We were like kids in a candy store, as soon as the images came in, there were smiles across the board," said Sarafin. "This mission is a dream for many people across the agency and it's a tremendous day and tremendous achievement."
Once its lap out past the Moon is complete, Orion will head back to Earth, where it will splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11. The landing, just like the rest of the mission, will be a practice run for future missions that will carry astronauts. As such, Orion is outfitted with scientific instruments that will provide a plethora of data to help engineers understand how astronauts will be affected by future flights. This includes radiation sensors and many more.
"This flight is not just about flying flight hardware, but it's about being as safe as we can." Sarafin said. "Flight safety for our astronauts is paramount."