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NASA's Artemis I returns from the moon with hopes to get astronauts back there soon

NASA's Orion Capsule splashes down after a successful uncrewed Artemis I Moon Mission on Sunday, seen from aboard the USS Portland in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, Mexico.
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NASA's Orion Capsule splashes down after a successful uncrewed Artemis I Moon Mission on Sunday, seen from aboard the USS Portland in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, Mexico.

Updated December 11, 2022 at 2:08 PM ET

NASA's new multibillion-dollar spacecraft successfully returned from the moon Sunday, taking the agency one step closer to getting U.S. astronauts back on the moon by 2025.

The Orion capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California at 9:40 a.m. PT, marking a successful phase one of NASA's Artemis program. Artemis 1 traveled 1.4 million miles, circling the moon, and returned within 25 and a half days, a feat no other human-rated spacecraft has achieved.

Robert D. Cabana, NASA's associate administrator, said aside from a few minor glitches along the way, the spacecraft performed "flawlessly."

The capsule performed a "skip entry" descent where it dipped in and out of the atmosphere to slow down the vehicle before re-entry. This type of descent will provide data for splashdown sites for future crewed missions, NASA spokesperson Rob Navias said on NASA's live stream on Sunday.

NASA called it a perfectly conducted "textbook entry."

"Watching it from the deck as an observer, we saw those three full main parachutes pop out," said NASA spokesperson Derrol Nail, speaking from the USS Portland several miles from the splashdown site. "It was a beautiful sight, probably just about several thousand feet in the sky, and we watched that slow descent as the Orion crew module made its way down to the Pacific Ocean."

The navy boat was waiting for the ammonia to vent off, allotting as long as two hours, before closing in on the capsule. Ammonia, lethal to humans when exposed to high levels, is used for the crew module's cooling system, which is crucial for future crewed missions, Nail said.

A key part of the descent was to test the spacecraft's heat shield against the "searing heat of entry" where temperatures built up to around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit around Orion, Navias said. That's half as hot as the outer surface of the sun.

A step toward returning humans to the moon

The successful splashdown keeps NASA's Artemis mission on track to put the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface by 2025. "This test flight is what we need in order to prove this vehicle so that we can fly with a crew," Cabana said Sunday. "That's the next step and I can't wait."

But delays are not out of the equation, as seen in the months leading up to the capsule launch. NASA delayed the Artemis 1 mission for several months due what seemed like an engine issue at the time, followed by a liquid hydrogen leak, and then a hurricane. The mission finally launched Nov. 16.

The lunar program, named after Apollo's twin sister, hopes to revitalize some of the glory that NASA's previous moon-landing missions amassed a half-century ago. An estimated 600 million people tuned in to watch the Apollo 11 landing in July 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon.

"It seems fitting that we would honor Apollo with the new legacy of the Artemis generation and this mission today," Catherine Koerner, deputy associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, said on Sunday.

The next phase of the Artemis program will send the first crewed capsule around the moon and back, without landing on the moon, in 2024. NASA astronaut Shannon Walker on Sunday estimated that NASA will announce the crew for this phase sometime in the next six months.

NASA then aims to use the Orion capsule and a SpaceX human landing system to land astronauts on the moon for phase three of the program by 2025. The contract with Elon Musk's company is valued at nearly $2.9 billion.

NASA's inspector general, Paul Martin, said each of its first three flights will cost more than $4 billion, not including billions more in development costs. And by the end of fiscal 2025, NASA estimates it will have spent $93 billion on the Artemis missions.

The mission is part of an even larger goal than what Apollo set out to achieve, according to Cabana, NASA's associate administrator.

"We're paving a way to go on to not just the moon and Mars, but to establish a presence in our solar system beyond our home planet — to explore, to have those technologies in space, and to continue to learn and improve things here on planet Earth," he said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Ashley Ahn
Ashley Ahn is an intern for the Digital News and Graphics desks. She previously covered the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for CNN's health and medical unit and the trial of Ahmaud Arbery's killers for CNN's Atlanta News Bureau. She also wrote pieces for USA TODAY and served as the Executive Editor of her college's student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. Recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Ahn is pursuing a master's degree in computer science at Columbia University.