Artemis I is NASA’s just-completed, uncrewed test mission to the moon and back. Find out what the mission has accomplished, now that its splashdown is complete.
Growing up during the Space Race, there was a final ritual to which we all looked forward. After an American space capsule carrying astronauts re-entered the atmosphere, it deployed its parachutes and landed in the Pacific Ocean.
An aircraft carrier would be waiting nearby, and helicopters would hover over the floating capsule to lift the astronauts from the ocean. Then, they’d ferry the astronauts back to the ship for the trip home.
Back in those days, when scientists weren’t sure if there was life on the moon, the astronauts would be quarantined for 21 days after a moon mission. They lived in a mobile quarantine facility which NASA could fly back to Houston for most of the lock-down.
Re-Entry At Least As Dangerous as Lift-Off
Although it was less spectacular than lift-off, re-entry was at least as dangerous, and most astronauts found it more unnerving. The capsule returned to Earth without power or steering, and it had to enter the atmosphere at precisely the correct angle to avoid bouncing back into space forever.
The friction of the atmosphere generated intense heat and flames. If the heat shield failed, the astronauts would die helplessly. That’s what happened in the space shuttle Columbia disaster.
NASA’s latest lunar mission, Artemis I just completed the same procedure. Its Orion space capsule splashed down near Guadalupe Island in the Pacific Ocean today.
Completely Successful Uncrewed Test Mission
By all accounts, it’s been a completely successful, uncrewed test mission that exceeded all expectations. The mission’s goal was to test as many systems as possible in real-life conditions before landing people on the moon again.
According to NASA, Project Artemis travelled “to the moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits and inspiration for a new generation of explorers.” It’s part of an ongoing plan to use the moon as a springboard to a crewed mission to Mars.
The most intriguing aspects of the mission were the Artemis I space capsule Orion’s close flybys of the moon. During the first maneuver, Orion was just 130 kilometres above the moon and at the same time, 370,000 kilometres from Earth.
Travelled Over Apollo 11 Landing Site
During that flyby, Orion traveled over Apollo 11’s original landing site, as well as around the far side of the moon. Commenting on the flyby, Artemis I mission manager Mike Sarafin said, “The mission continues to proceed as we had planned, and the ground systems, our operations teams, and the Orion spacecraft continue to exceed expectations, and we continue to learn along the way about this new, deep-space spacecraft.”
Orion then started travelling beyond the moon, following a trajectory similar to the one the Apollo 13 crew used to slingshot their damaged spacecraft back to Earth. In fact, Artemis I broke Apollo 13’s record for the furthest distance from Earth by a space capsule.
After reaching its maximum distance from Earth, Orion fired its main engine to leave lunar orbit with a maneuver called the distant retrograde departure burn. Then, following its slingshot strategy, it returned to the moon and made a second lunar flyby.
Splashed Down off Coast of Baja Peninsula
Having completed that flyby, Orion left the lunar sphere of influence for the final time and headed back to Earth. It splashed down flawlessly in the Pacific on Sunday, December 11, off the coast of the Baja Pensinsula.
The command and service modules separated, with only the command module re-entering the atmosphere. Orion tested a new kind of re-entry maneuver called a “skip entry.”
The technique is a bit like skipping stones across a pond. It makes re-entry more accurate, and allows spacecraft to splash down closer to the US coast.
“Skip Re-Entry” Like Skipping Stones Across a Pond
The capsule dipped into the outer atmosphere and back out again, followed by a final re-entry maneuver. The atmosphere slowed the capsule from its deep space cruising speed of 1,300 km/hr to 525 km/hr.
Landing closer to the coast will be an important safety improvement for crewed missions. It makes it easier to recover the astronauts and to deploy additional resources if needed in an emergency.
The Artemis I splashdown looked very much like the ones I remember from 50 years ago. The capsule deployed a series of 11 parachutes, culminating in the three massive main chutes. Then it gently splashed into the ocean, where naval divers retrieved it from inflatable boats.
NASA Channel Broadcast Splashdown
I enjoyed watching the splashdown on the NASA channel, if only for nostalgia’s sake. Space travel has always provided the promised scientific and economic benefits.
We’ll learn more about the moon and our solar system from crewed lunar landings in the future. Building spacecraft fosters invention and technological innovation as well as creating employment.
Even so, if we’re honest with ourselves, the real reason we devote so much time, effort and money to space missions like Artemis I is NASA’s third reason – inspiration. Humanity is insatiably curious and we all love a hero’s journey.
Real Reason for Space Travel is Inspiration
Even when our hero is a machine using artificial intelligence, we take pride in its accomplishments. We all want to know what’s out there, and whether we’re alone among the stars.
“With splashdown we have successfully operated Orion in the deep space environment,” Mike Sarafin concluded. “It exceeded our expectations, and demonstrated that Orion can withstand the extreme conditions of returning through Earth’s atmosphere from lunar velocities.”
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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