Splashdown as Nasa’s Orion spacecraft returns to Earth

Orion capsule is drawn to the well deck of the USS Portland after it splashed down - Mario Tama/Getty Images
Orion capsule is drawn to the well deck of the USS Portland after it splashed down - Mario Tama/Getty Images

Nasa mission controllers breathed a sigh of relief after the Orion crew module splashed down successfully into the Pacific Ocean - exactly 50 years after humans last landed on the Moon.

The little unmanned spacecraft entered the water at 5.41pm after a nerve-racking journey through the Earth’s atmosphere, in which it battled temperatures of 2760C - half as hot as the outer surface of the Sun.

The flight, which launched from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on November 16, is the first of the Artemis missions, which are seeking to take humans back to the Moon.

Orion undertook a 25-day test mission to make sure its systems were functioning properly before astronauts get on board.  Its journey saw it orbit the Moon, before travelling further into space than any other human-rated spacecraft.

Artemis II, which is scheduled for 2024, will take humans back to the Moon’s orbit, before a landing in 2025.

Sunday’s splashdown occurred exactly 50 years after the last moonwalkers, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, landed on the lunar surface in Apollo 17.

"It seems fitting we would honour Apollo with the new legacy of the Artemis mission today," said Cathy Koerner, Nasa’s deputy administrator for exploration systems.

"This has been a phenomenal mission this far. If you asked for a grade, I would give us an A plus."

Bill Nelson, Nasa's administrator, added: "I am overwhelmed. This is an extraordinary day. It’s history because we are now going back into deep space with a new generation.

"Two main things had to happen, that heat shield had to work and it did beautifully where it can skip off the atmosphere and the parachutes had to work and they did that as well.

"A new day has dawned, one that marks new technology, a whole new breed of astronaut."


Orion made a complicated 'skip re-entry', which involved dipping into the atmosphere then out again, like a flat rock skimming the pond, to help slow the spacecraft down.

Mission control faced two nail-biting blackout periods during re-entry where they lost contact with the craft.

Once through the atmosphere, a complex network of 11 parachutes deployed to slow down the 24,464mph spacecraft so it could drop gently into the five foot waves off the coast of Baja California, Mexico.

The textbook splashdown saw the capsule land perfectly upright, although bags were ready to inflate in case it needed flipping over.

Orion - NASA/AP
Orion - NASA/AP

A team of Navy divers from the USS Portland will need to wait two hours before recovering the capsule to make sure Orion has completely cooled down and is not venting toxic gases.

After recovery, post-flight analysis teams will scrutinise the on-board sensors which have been measuring radiation and heat levels to ensure astronauts will be safe when they go up.

Two torso mannequins named Helga and Zohar were strapped into the crew seats, one with a radiation vest and one without.

Nasa has vowed to place the first woman on the lunar surface in 2025, but the female body is extremely vulnerable to space radiation, and the space agency is hoping protective vests could help.

Orion capsule makes its way towards the the USS Portland - CAROLINE BREHMAN/AFP
Orion capsule makes its way towards the the USS Portland - CAROLINE BREHMAN/AFP

A further mannequin, wearing the orion crew survival system suit that future astronauts will wear, was occupying the commander’s seat.

Nasa also revealed this weekend that it had placed hidden puzzles, or 'Easter Eggs' in the Orion crew capsule, and invited the public to spot the secret messages.

On the starboard side next to the pilot's seat are the letters 'CBAGF' - the musical notes from the song Fly Me to the Moon.

In tribute to Orion’s international partnership with the European Space Agency, the dialling codes of each country that participated in developing and building the spacecraft’s European Service Module can also be found.


A morse code symbol for "Charlie" commemorates the life of Charlie Lundquist, the former Orion deputy program manager, who died in 2020.

An image of a cardinal is a tribute to Mark Geyer, the former Orion program manager, Johnson Space Center director, and St Louis Cardinals fan, who died in 2021.

Finally, the binary code for the number 18 is located on the top of the pilot’s seat to celebrate a human spacecraft’s return to the Moon for the first time since Apollo 17.