Orion flies around moon for final time before heading back to Earth

Capsule flew over a couple Apollo landing sites before journey home

The Orion capsule flew around the moon for its final time, before heading back to Earth.

NASA said the capsule will aim for a Pacific splashdown Sunday, Dec. 11, off San Diego, setting the stage for astronauts on the next flight in a couple years.

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During the flyby burn, Orion used the moon’s gravity to accelerate back toward Earth. It spent a week in a wide, sweeping lunar orbit.

“The return powered flyby is the last large maneuver of the mission, with only smaller trajectory corrections to target Earth remaining,” NASA said on its blog.

The capsule also passed over the landing sites of Apollo 12 and 14. But at 6,000 miles (9,600 kilometers) up, it was too high to make out the descent stages of the lunar landers or anything else left behind by astronauts more than a half-century ago. During a similar flyover two weeks ago, it was too dark for pictures. This time, it was daylight.

Orion flew by the moon on Nov. 21 for the first time in 50 years, following the successful launch of NASA’s mega moon rocket from Florida’s Space Coast.

After years of delays and billions in cost overruns, the Space Launch System rocket roared skyward, rising from Kennedy Space Center on 8.8 million pounds of thrust and hitting 100 mph within seconds. The Orion capsule was perched on top and, less than two hours into the flight, busted out of Earth’s orbit toward the moon.

The three-week test flight has exceeded expectations so far, according to officials. But the biggest challenge still lies ahead: hitting the atmosphere at more than 30 times the speed of sound and surviving the fiery reentry.

Artemis is the long-awaited NASA program to take Americans back to the moon and possibly to Mars. The uncrewed first mission hopes to see the Orion spacecraft circle the moon before returning to Earth.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

About the Authors:

Brenda Argueta is a digital journalist who joined ClickOrlando.com in March 2021. She graduated from UCF and returned to Central Florida after working in Colorado.