NASA’s Orion capsule reached the Moon on Monday, whipping around the far side and buzzing the lunar surface on its way to a record-breaking orbit with test dummies sitting in for astronauts.
It’s the first time a space capsule has visited the Moon since NASA’s Apollo program 50 years ago and represents a massive milestone in the €4 billion test flight that began last Wednesday.
The close approach of 81 miles (130 km) occurred as the crew capsule and its three wired-up dummies were on the Moon's far side.
Because of a half-hour communication blackout, flight controllers in Houston did not know if the critical engine firing went well until the capsule emerged from behind the Moon, more than 370,000 km from Earth.
The capsule's cameras sent back a picture of the world - a tiny blue orb surrounded by blackness.
“Our pale blue dot and its 8 billion human inhabitants now coming into view,” said Mission Control commentator Sandra Jones.
The capsule accelerated well beyond 8,000 km/h as it regained radio contact, NASA said. Less than an hour later, Orion soared above Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969.
“This is one of those days that you’ve been thinking about and talking about for a long, long time,” flight director Zeb Scoville said.
Earlier in the morning, the Moon loomed ever larger in the video beamed back, as the capsule closed the final few thousand kilometres since blasting off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, atop the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA.
Orion needed to slingshot around the Moon to pick up enough speed to enter the sweeping, lopsided lunar orbit. Flight controllers evaluated the data pouring back, to determine if the engine firing went 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 400,000 km from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970. And it will keep going, reaching a maximum distance from Earth next Monday at nearly 433,000 km.
The capsule will spend close to a week in lunar orbit, before heading home. A Pacific splashdown is planned for December 11.
Orion has no lunar lander; a touchdown won't come until NASA astronauts attempt a lunar landing in 2025 with SpaceX's Starship. Before then, astronauts will strap into Orion for a ride around the Moon as early as 2024.
NASA managers were delighted with the progress of the mission. The Space Launch System rocket performed exceedingly well in its debut, they told reporters late last week.
The 98-metre rocket caused more damage than expected, however, at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad. The force from the 4 million kg of liftoff thrust was so great that it tore off the blast doors of the elevator.