Sunday's splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico marked the successful conclusion of a 25-day test flight that took the unmanned spacecraft around the moon and back to Earth.
The Artemis I mission paves the way for NASA's program to return humans to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972 later this decade.
At 12:20 p.m. Eastern, after spending more than three weeks in deep space, Orion began its descent through the Earth's atmosphere, reaching temperatures of approximately 2,760 degrees Celsius. Before resuming its descent, the spacecraft employed an unusual skip entry technique, bouncing off the atmosphere to reduce its speed. The maneuver is designed to reduce the G forces that future astronauts must endure.
Re-entry also served as a test of the spacecraft's heat shield, which had to perform flawlessly to protect the crew cabin of Orion during its descent. Eventually, the vehicle deployed parachutes to further slow its descent, resulting in a smooth splashdown at 12:40 p.m.
Rob Navias, a NASA commentator, said during a livestream of the return, "The latest chapter of NASA's journey to the moon comes to a close." "Orion returned to Earth."
In the early hours of November 16th, the Artemis I mission successfully launched Orion into space, following a series of August delays due to bad weather and technical difficulties. The new Space Launch System rocket launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, initially placing Orion in orbit around Earth. The mission marked the debut of the massive rocket.
Orion traveled from Earth's orbit to the moon, arriving six days later, before entering a distant lunar orbit. At two points during the journey, the spacecraft approached the moon's surface within 129 kilometers.
In lunar orbit, the spacecraft reached a maximum distance of 432,210 kilometers from Earth, shattering the previous record for spacecraft designed to transport humans to and from Earth. After leaving its extended lunar orbit, Orion passed by the moon once more on December 5 before returning to Earth.
The earliest date for the Artemis II mission to fly astronauts around the moon is at least one year away. Since the SLS rocket for the mission is still under construction, it is possible that the target date of 2024 could be delayed.
Additionally, flight computers and other equipment from the just-landed capsule will need to be removed and reinstalled into another Orion spacecraft that is being readied for the Artemis II mission, a laborious and time-consuming process.
NASA will not attempt a manned lunar landing until the Artemis III mission follows. NASA estimates that the mission could take place as early as 2025, but the agency has a lengthy to-do list that raises doubts about its ability to adhere to its schedule.
A challenge will be preparing new lunar space suits. NASA awarded Axiom Space Inc. the contract to develop the spacesuits this year; however, it is unknown how far development has progressed.
NASA also requires a human lunar lander that can transport astronauts from Orion to the moon's surface and back. NASA selected SpaceX for the job in 2021. The rocket company founded by Elon Musk is working on a Starship rocket of the next generation to serve as a lander for the Artemis III mission, but Starship has not yet made its maiden voyage into orbit.
SpaceX had hoped to launch as soon as the end of the year, but it is unlikely that this will occur. Even after this vehicle reaches space, many obstacles remain in the construction of the lander. SpaceX must equip the vehicle to transport humans, devise a method for Starship to refuel in space, and test its ability to land on the moon's surface.
With the completion of Artemis I, NASA can add a notch to its belt, but it will be a while before any astronauts set foot on the moon again.