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NASA’s Orion capsule returns home after a test flight to the Moon

“I’m overwhelmed,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said from Mission Control in Houston. “It’s an amazing day… It’s historic because we’re now going back to space — deep space — with a new generation.”

The space agency needed a successful splashdown to stay on track for Orion’s next flight around the moon, currently scheduled for 2024. Four astronauts will make the trip. This will be followed by a two-person lunar landing as early as 2025.

Astronauts last landed on the Moon 50 years ago on Sunday. After landing on December 11, 1972, Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent three days exploring the Taurus-Littrow Valley, the longest sojourn of the Apollo era. They were the last of the 12 moonwalkers.

Orion was the first capsule to visit the moon since then, launched on NASA’s new mega moon rocket from Kennedy Space Center on November 16. It was the first flight of NASA’s new Artemis lunar program, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister.

“From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the final chapter of NASA’s journey to the moon is coming to an end. Orion back on Earth,” announced Mission Control commentator Rob Navias .

While no one was on the $4 billion test flight, NASA officials were excited to hold the dress rehearsal, especially after so many years of flight delays and crumbling budgets. Fuel leaks and hurricanes conspired for further postponements in late summer and fall.

In a throwback to Apollo, NASA hosted a party at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Sunday, with employees and their families gathered to watch the broadcast of Orion’s return. Next door, the visitor center held a party for the public.

Recovering Orion intact after the 25-day flight was NASA’s primary goal. With a return speed of 25,000 mph (40,000 km/h) – considerably faster than coming from low Earth orbit – the capsule used a new advanced heat shield never before tested in spaceflight. To reduce gravity or G-charges, he dove into the atmosphere and briefly jumped, also helping to locate the splash zone.

This all unfolded spectacularly, Nelson noted, allowing Orion’s safe return.

The splash occurred more than 300 miles (482 kilometers) south of the original target area. Forecasts of rough seas and high winds off the southern California coast prompted NASA to change its location.

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