After 25 and a half days in space, a test version of the Orion spacecraft returned to Earth. It splashed down just off the western coastline of Baja, California, at 9:40 a.m. PST on December 11, 2022.
“With splashdown we have successfully operated Orion in the deep space environment, where it exceeded our expectations, and demonstrated that Orion can withstand the extreme conditions of returning through Earth’s atmosphere from lunar velocities,” said Artemis 1 mission manager Mike Sarafin in a press release published by NASA.
Orion spent most of its mission in a highly elliptical retrograded orbit around the Moon. Twice, it came within 80 miles of the lunar surface.
Artemis I included valuable flight tests, scientific experiments, and a couple of fun characters.
Engineers and mission controllers put Orion through numerous “stress tests,” which it passed with flying colors. The life support system was one of the few things that wasn’t fully tested. Mission controllers only tested a nitrogen delivery system. Nitrogen is an inert gas that helps avoid the hazards of a pure oxygen system, such as an out-of-control fire on the spacecraft.
The payload on Orion included a “manikin” that resembles a crash test dummy in one of the Orion Crew Survival System suits that NASA plans to use for the Artemis mission. The “manikin” was equipped with radiation sensors. Orion’s non-alive “crew” also included two phantom torsos with sensors that measured radiation.
Scientific experiments also included studies of the nutritional value of seeds, fungi DNA repair, adaptation of yeast, and gene expression of algae that have all been exposed to the space environment around the Moon. The studies will help inform scientists about the effects of the deep space environment on biological systems.
Snoopy returned to lunar orbit for the first time in decades as a plush toy who served as the Orion spacecraft’s zero G indicator. The zero G indicator is usually a small toy that will start to float when the acceleration of launch is cut off.
Apollo 10 previously gave a nod to the Peanuts comic strip by naming its command module “Charlie Brown” and its lunar module “Snoopy” in 1969. (Afterward, NASA apparently insisted on using more serious names for its spacecraft.)
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade gave a nice little nod to Artemis I and its inclusion of Snoopy.
“Shaun the Sheep” also joined the Artemis I mission and published a short explainer of the mission – from a cartoon sheep’s perspective, of course.
Fifty Years Since Humans Last Walked on the Moon
A human crew last visited the Moon with the Apollo 17 mission, which landed in the Taurus-Littrow region on the Moon on December 11, 1972. The site had been chosen for the rocks’ theoretical age range, which was different from rock samples returned during previous Apollo missions.
Harrison “Jack” Schmitt and Eugene Cernan conducted three EVAs on the lunar surface over the course of three days, collecting samples and setting up scientific experiments. Don Evans waited for them in lunar orbit, and then conducted the last trans-Earth EVA to retrieve lunar sounder film and camera film cassettes.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson cited the Apollo 17 mission when discussing the return of the Orion spacecraft: “The splashdown of the Orion spacecraft – which occurred 50 years to the day of the Apollo 17 Moon landing – is the crowning achievement of Artemis I. From the launch of the world’s most powerful rocket to the exceptional journey around the Moon and back to Earth, this flight test is a major step forward in the Artemis Generation of lunar exploration.”
It may still be years before humans walk on the Moon again. NASA plans to start sending crews with future Artemis missions. The Human Landing System being designed by SpaceX will be included on Artemis missions as early as Artemis III.