NASA’s Orion Capsule Officially Reaches Moon, First Visit Since Apollo Program

by Shelby Scott
(Photo by Red Huber/Getty Images)

Half a century ago, NASA accomplished a historic feat. The American space agency put humans on the surface of Earth’s Moon for the very first time. Half a century later, it accomplished another historic feat in its efforts to put humans back on the moon. NASA successfully launched the Artemis I spacecraft on Wednesday, November 16th after multiple delays. Following much anticipation, the craft’s Orion capsule, which contains three test dummies, buzzed the moon. The feat made it the first capsule to do so since NASA launched the Apollo program decades ago.

The AP reports NASA’s Orion capsule came within 81 miles of the moon. However, this close approach occurred while it and its test dummies were on the satellite’s far side. As such, the space agency experienced a temporary half-hour communication blackout. The blackout represented a long 30 minutes where flight controllers in Houston were uncertain whether or not the craft’s critical firing engine functioned successfully. Finally, though, Orion emerged from behind the moon, with NASA recording a distance between it and the earth of 232,000 miles.

Emerging from behind the moon, Orion captured a stunning photo of our planet. Per the news outlet, the image sees Earth as a “tiny blue orb” surrounded by darkness. Now, after successfully emerging in the moon’s orbit, Orion will spend several weeks circumnavigating our planet’s only natural satellite, collecting crucial data before landing in the Pacific Ocean on December 11th.

When Orion regained contact with NASA, the craft was recorded moving at an unimaginable 5,000 miles per hour. Its speed was necessary though in making sure the craft was able to enter the moon’s orbit. An hour after regaining contact, Orion passed over the Tranquility Base. The Tranquility Base marks the spot where astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 29th, 1969 during the Apollo mission.

What Comes Next for NASA and Orion?

While Orion made history on Monday, NASA still has a lot of work to do. As part of a three-phase mission, Orion will not make contact with the moon’s surface. Instead, the spacecraft is intended to solely study responses via test dummies regarding levels of radiation and overall quality. Still, Orion continues to represent history in the making.

After emerging from behind the moon, Orion aims to shatter a long-held record set during the Apollo mission. During the Thanksgiving weekend, Orion will travel farther than any other spacecraft designed to carry astronauts. Apollo 13 traveled a remarkable 250,000 miles from Earth in 1970. However, by the weekend, Orion will have strayed nearly 270,000 miles from earth, far beyond the record set during Apollo.

Unfortunately, while Orion takes us one step closer to putting humans on the moon, we still have a few years to wait. NASA plans to carry out the second and third phases of the Artemis moon mission in 2024 and 2025, with humans not stepping foot on our lunar neighbor until 2025 at the earliest.