Photos: NASA’s historic Artemis I mission returns to Earth after trip to the Moon

This was an important step before sending humans to the Moon again and setting up a landing site on its South Pole.
Ameya Paleja
The moment Orion capsule splashed down
The moment Orion capsule splashed down

NASA 

NASA closed the curtains on the Artemis I mission with a historic splashdown of the Orion capsule, which completed a 1.4-million-mile (2.3 million km) journey to the Moon and back in 25.5 days. The uncrewed capsule touched down on the tranquil waters of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico's Baja Peninsula at 12:40 pm EST on Sunday, Space.com reported.

The Artemis I mission is the first of the five missions that NASA has planned to take humans back to the Moon, 50 years after the Apollo missions. This time around, though, instead of just stepping on the Moon, the mission intends to set up a permanent base on the South Pole, which is thought to be rich in water ice.

The Artemis I mission was uncrewed and sent out with the aim of testing a host of systems that would be involved in taking humans back to the Moon. Crucial among them is the Space Launch System (SLS), which created history when it took off with the Orion from Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) generating 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff to become the most powerful launcher built by humanity thus far.

The other is the Orion capsule itself which will be home to the astronauts throughout their trip to the Moon and carry out the difficult task of bringing them back to Earth.

The Orion's reentry maneuver

Before Sunday, the Orion capsule had already created history on November 26 when traveled to a distance of 268,563 miles (432,210 km), the furthest a spacecraft designed to carry humans has gone ever from the Earth. On Sunday, December 11, as the capsule hurled toward Earth at speeds exceeding 20,000 miles an hour, it aimed to create another record of its own by performing a skip maneuver, something that no spacecraft has attempted before.

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Photos: NASA’s historic Artemis I mission returns to Earth after trip to the Moon
Orion on one of its mission days

Like a rock that skips on the surface of the pond before plunging into the waters, the Orion tested the fancy technique of reentry, something that was known since the Apollo days but never ventured.

As the capsule reentered the atmosphere, it felt the drag of increasing air density. The heat shield, the largest on a spacecraft so far, protected it from the intense heat generated during the process, estimated to be around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,800 degrees Celsius).

The design of the capsule also allowed it to generate lift from this descent that sent the Orion back into space to dive back again into the atmosphere to target its landing site with much more precision, The Atlantic said in its report.

Minutes later, Orion's three main parachutes deployed slowing its descent before it splashed down, right as per its schedule at 12:40 pm EST. The USS Portland has been tasked with the recovery of the capsule which will ferry it to the port of San Diego, from where the capsule will journey back to KSC for in-depth inspections and analysis.

Easter eggs on the Orion capsule

Unknown to many, the Orion capsule carried a total of five "Easter eggs" for space enthusiasts that NASA has now revealed, Sputnik News reported. The window to the right of the pilot's seat carried the logo of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, in honor of former program manager Mark Geyer, who died in 2021.

In front of the pilot's seat, are numbers, 1, 31, 32, 33, 34, 39, 41, 43, 46, 47, and 49 which are international dialing codes of the countries that were involved in building the service module of the spacecraft. These were the United States, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Norway, and Germany, or largely the European Space Agency.

Above the Callisto voice control technology demonstrator placed in the center of the cabin is the name "Charlie" written in Morse code in memory of former deputy program manager Charlie Lundquist, who died in 2020.

Under one of the portholes and next to the pilot's seat are the letters, C, B, A, G, and F which are notes to the famous song, Fly Me to the Moon while right next to the NASA logo above the pilot's seat is the number 18 written in binary code, which refers to the Apollo Mission that culminated after the 17th mission.

What appears to be an incident-free trip thus far, has paved the way for more trips to the Moon in the coming year. Next is the Artemis II scheduled for 2024, which will take a crew around the Moon, followed by Artemis III, which plans to land astronauts on the South Pole of the Moon before 2026.