Fifty years ago today, the last time humans landed on the surface of the moon Apollo 17 mission. Now, after a journey of 1.4 million miles, NASA’s Orion spacecraft has safely returned to Earth — marking the completion of the agency’s Artemis 1 mission and the first step in humanity’s return to the Moon.
“Artemis is paving the way for living and working in deep space, in harsh environments — inventing, creating and ultimately traveling with humans to Mars,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters nearly two weeks before splashdown.
Launched in the early hours of November 16, Artemis I was the first flight test of NASA’s massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the first lunar landing of the agency’s crew-class Orion spacecraft. During its 26-day mission, Orion traced a record-setting path around the moon, circling to within 80 miles of the lunar surface and as far as it flew past the moon, to a point about 270,000 miles from Earth. NASA administrators tested the spacecraft and challenged it to remain operational in the harsh deep space environment for much longer than typical crewed missions last. They tested its propulsion, communications, life support and navigation systems — and found no major problems.
“It’s been an incredible success, and as far as we know, there have been really minimal issues that arose,” said Teasel Muir-Harmony, space historian and curator of the National Air and Space Museum’s Apollo Collection. “With a new launch vehicle and a very complex mission, it’s exciting to see it work well.”
The most critical and dangerous test took place today, when Orion left space and returned to Earth at high speed. Traveling at about 25,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft performed what’s known as a jump reentry, briefly dipping in and out of the outer atmosphere to slow down before making a second and final dive. The next time it touched Earth’s air, Orion didn’t skim the atmosphere like a boulder, but swooped all the way down. As the spacecraft fell, atmospheric friction heated its exterior to more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, about half the temperature of the sun’s surface.
“They’re basically going through a blowtorch,” says Daniel Dunbach, who oversaw the initial development of the SLS while at NASA and is now executive director of the National Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “We will never be comfortable and complacent about re-entry. Re-entry is high-risk, high-energy [maneuver]; You want to make sure you get it right. “
Surviving this crash without burning up required the spacecraft’s heat shield to work flawlessly — and it did. Next came the drogue and the main onboard parachute, which deployed when the capsule was 5,300 feet above the Pacific Ocean, slowing it down to 20 miles per hour.
By 12:40 p.m. ET, Orion was bobbing safely up and down in the white water off the coast of Guadalupe Island like a billion-dollar oversized cork, awaiting rescue by NASA and U.S. Navy personnel.
smooth test cruise
Just after 1:45 a.m. ET on Nov. 16, NASA’s orange SLS rocket Rising and roaring to the sky, lit up Florida’s Space Coast in an artificial dawn. The launch was a triumph: It was the largest rocket ever launched into space by humans, and the first time a manned spacecraft visited the vicinity of the Moon in half a century. The milestones come after years of development and testing delays during which costs ballooned.After months of frustrating inaction on the launch pad, they Leak during refueling wipes out previous flight attempt Several hurricanes hit the SLS and the Orion “stack” with torrential rain and 100 mph winds.
But after that rocky start, the road became smoother. The SLS sent Orion into orbit flawlessly. The spacecraft set its own lunar course, executing the crucial 20-minute long engine burn flawlessly. The engines remained intact during flight, firing multiple times to glide in and out of lunar orbit and return home. Along the way, mission managers found no major anomalies onboard, just a series of minor incidents that they called “interesting” — things that were unexpected but not entirely problematic.
“The surprises we encountered were pleasant surprises,” he said Mike SarafinNASA’s Artemis mission manager, during a pre-splash press conference on Nov. 30.
Perhaps the most serious problem during the mission occurred during the first weekend in December, when the Goldstone radio telescope, the backbone of NASA’s Deep Space Network, went offline, disrupting communications with the spacecraft for hours. The launch facility at Kennedy Space Center also suffered some accidental damage as the SLS jumped off the launch pad, shock waves and exhaust plumes hit the moving launch structure and blew the doors off the elevators.
In fact, things are going so well that managers feel confident enough to conduct additional immediate tests of the spacecraft’s capabilities as the mission progresses. Finally, it all worked.
“We’re getting what we need out of it, which is a debug cruise on the systems to make sure they’re all working,” Dumbacher said. will conclude that it is safe to put humans on the next system.”
The payload in question
Although Artemis 1 achieved its primary goals — demonstrating Orion’s capabilities in deep space and successfully returning the spacecraft to Earth — some of the mission’s lower-priority secondary missions produced decidedly mixed results. the result of. When the spacecraft flew into orbit, it carried 10 CubeSats, science experiments the size of shoeboxes. Some of these are designed to allow the Moon to study ice and other features on its surface. Others are sent to monitor the space environment. One of them, NASA’s NEA Scout, was even targeted for a rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid.
Of the 10 CubeSats, about half worked as planned. It’s not clear whether the other people’s problems have anything to do with the experiments staying on the rocket for too long — they were loaded onto the SLS more than a year ago, some of which were not fully charged when they deployed — or to the problem of designing smaller rockets. Challenges related to satellite work in deep space.
NEA Scout is thought to be lost and has yet to make contact with the ground; its team doesn’t even know if the spacecraft has ever been activated. The Japanese CubeSat OMOTENASHI was originally intended to send a small lander to the lunar surface, but it spun out of control after deployment, preventing further operations. Another NASA CubeSat, LunaH-Map, failed to perform critical propulsion maneuvers and is now unable to complete its goal of mapping the ice around the Moon’s south pole.
“All of this is going into deep space, which isn’t the traditional environment for a cubesat — it’s more challenging,” says MIT’s Paul Lozano, who builds propulsion systems for small satellites. Lozano said he was actually impressed with the CubeSat’s overall performance, and described the mission that ran into the biggest problems as “ambitious.”
“There really aren’t that many opportunities to go into deep space with CubeSats, so there are more of them available — and I think that’s a good thing for small satellites,” Lozano said. “I think we have a lot to learn about how to design these spacecraft so that in the future, we can design smaller spacecraft that can do what larger spacecraft can.”
Despite this hiccup, Artemis 1 performed much better than its equivalent missions during the Apollo program: 1968’s Apollo 6the last unmanned test flight of the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo spacecraft, almost failed.
“It’s not fulfilling its mission. There are major problems [engine] Oscillations when firing. They had an engine failure – the engine shut down prematurely. It can’t go to the moon; it has to stay in Earth orbit,” Muir-Harmony said. “These are very important questions that came up on that mission. But they do get data. They are able to analyze tasks. They can feel that they can move on to the next task. “
Even as Apollo 6 Limping across finish line, NASA opts for crew aboard Apollo 7, It orbited the Earth in 10 days and laid the groundwork for subsequent missions that sent astronauts into lunar orbit and on the lunar surface.
“I’d be surprised – if this mission was as Apollo 6— if we don’t do another test mission, but that’s hard to say,” Muir-Harmony said. “We now have many more decades of spaceflight experience. It’s nothing like the 1960s, when we barely had any spaceflight experience. “
a day may be appropriate half a century later Apollo 17 Landing in the mountains on the southeastern edge of the lunar region, Orion returns to Earth in much the same way as splashes of yesteryear. before reaching the moon, Apollo 17 The crew snapped an image of Earth —swirling sand blue marble, glowing in the blackness of nothingness – it has become one of the most recognizable depictions of our planet. Orion also photographed the cosmic landscape during its trip and sent home a stream of gorgeous images. in a seriesas Orion rounds the Moon’s bend and is visible in the foreground, with crescent Earth twinkling above the monochrome lunar horizon—towards Apollo 8of”out of the ground” For the Artemis generation.
December 14 marks 50th anniversary Apollo 17NASA Astronaut Drags Hundreds of Pounds of Moon Rocks Behind His Spacecraft When Leaving the Moon’s Surface Eugene Cernan Be the last human ever to walk on the Moon. Although Cernan knew when he left that the Moon would once again return to an uninhabited desolation, he could not have foreseen at the time that it would take decades for humans to return.
“I’m on the surface. When I take the last step of humanity from the surface and come home for a while – but we believe the future won’t be too long – I think [say] I believe history will record,” Cernan says“The challenges of the United States today will shape the destiny of mankind tomorrow.”