Artemis I: NASA’s Orion splashes down after historic moon mission, paving way for future astronaut missions

Humans' next ride to the moon came zooming back down to Earth Sunday after completing a 1.4-million-mile journey around the moon and back.  

The splashdown of NASA's Orion spacecraft marked the final milestone for the Artemis 1 test flight of the moon capsule and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the first spaceflight for both vehicles designed to carry astronauts back to the moon for the first time in 50 years.

Orion’s maiden voyage started with the SLS launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida last month.

The 322-foot-tall rocket propelled the spacecraft into orbit with more than 8 million pounds of thrust kick-starting its 25.5-day mission to the moon and back.

On Sunday, a successful splashdown at 12:40 p.m. EST in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico marked the end of Orion's journey.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called it a "historic" and "extraordinary" day for the U.S. and its European partners.

"This is a defining day. It’s one that marks new technology, a whole new breed of astronauts, a vision for the future that captures the DNA of – in particular Americans, although we do this as an international effort -- and that DNA is we are explorers," Nelson said.

Before Earth re-entry began, Orion untethered from the European Space Agency service module that had been providing power and propelling the spacecraft throughout its journey around the moon.

"The European Service Module has done its job," NASA commentator Rob Navias after separation.

Using a method known as "skip entry," Orion dipped into the upper part of Earth’s atmosphere and then, like a stone skipping on water, jumped back out before the final descent.

Navias described the re-entry conditions as "hellish" as Orion’s heat shield needs to withstand 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures about half as hot as the outer surface of the sun.

The "moment of truth for Orion" was a key objective in the Artemis 1 test flight, proving whether the spacecraft heat shield could protect future astronauts returning home from the moon.

"That headshield had to work and it did beautifully," Nelson said.

From start to finish, Orion was moving at 25,000 mph and ultimately slowed to a gentle splash in the Pacific Ocean. As Orion plunged through Earth’s atmosphere, it used a series of parachutes to slow down.

After the splashdown, the spacecraft could be seen bobbing up and down in the Pacific Ocean.

U.S. Navy and NASA teams were there in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico waiting for Orion to splash down from its nearly 26-day mission. The recovery teams will bring Orion back to the USS Portland ship, where it will be brought back to the port at San Diego, California, before heading back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

To the moon and back

The Space Launch System rocket launch began Orion's journey traveling farther than any other vehicle designed to carry humans, reaching 270,000 from Earth.

Throughout the mission, NASA managers said Orion performed above expectations for a first flight. Engineers worked to troubleshoot some communication and power issues but overall said those were learning curves to flying a new spacecraft. 

A series of cameras inside and outside Orion offered breathtaking views of the lunar surface and Earth. 

During the first flyby of the moon, Orion zoomed past the far side of the moon facing away from Earth and continued on surpassing the Apollo 13 distance record.

Before heading back to Earth, Orion made its final close approach to the moon, traveling around 4,800 mph as it swept by the far side of the lunar surface. As Orion completed its final flyby, the spacecraft cameras captured Earth rising on the horizon.

Orion made two close flybys of the moon, reaching about 80 miles from the lunar surface and capturing beautiful detail of lunar craters. 

With the Artemis 1 mission complete, NASA engineers will begin the task at hand combing through all the data from the mission and examining the spacecraft to see how it did on the maiden voyage. 

"We’re going to be up to our ears in data, thankfully," the NASA administrator said moments after splashdown.

In 2024, NASA will launch two astronauts on another Orion spacecraft on the Artemis II mission. The space agency plans to announce who those astronauts will be some time next year.