NASA’s unmanned Orion lunar craft sails smoothly towards distant lunar orbit after a spectacular flight at low altitude Monday is operating almost flawlessly, mission managers said Monday, surpassing expectations for a flight that will pave the way for its first pilot mission in 2024.

Analysis of the huge Space Launch System rocket strengthened the Orion capsule on its way early Wednesday, it showed that it performed almost exactly as expected, taking off on top of 8.8 million pounds of thrust and producing an earth-shattering shockwave that literally blew the doors off the launch platform elevators.

The Space Shuttle’s four upgraded main engines and two solid-propellant boosters in the stage core blasted the 322-foot rocket out of the atmosphere and into space almost exactly as planned. At the time of the main engine shutdown, the SLS was within 3 miles of target altitude and 5 miles per hour of predicted speed.

Stunning “selfie” of the Orion spacecraft and the moon as the capsule approached a course-changing lunar flyby.


“When you think about the size of the system we have and how it performs when the engines are at full throttle … shutting down the engine at the core stage bypassed seven feet per second, which is just remarkable,” said Artemis 1 Mission Manager Mike Sarafin.

The upper stage of the rocket ensured a smooth launch from Earth orbit, sending the Orion spacecraft on its way to the moon.

“The vehicle continues to perform exceptionally well, we’ve seen really good performance across all our subsystems and systems and we’re certainly very pleased with the performance,” said the Orion program manager Howard Hu. “Today was a great day.”

He had reason to be pleased. Early Monday morning, the capsule reached its destination, using the main engine to set up a low-altitude flyby that brought the spacecraft to about 80 miles from the lunar surface.

Earth sets on the lunar horizon as the Orion spacecraft loses contact on the far side of the Moon.


Cameras mounted on the ends of the spacecraft’s solar panels captured stunning views of Earth, appearing like blue-and-white marble in the deep blackness of space, slowly setting over the lunar horizon as the spacecraft sailed across the moon and out of contact with flight controllers.

Using the Moon’s gravity to throw it back into space, Orion sailed directly over the Apollo 11 landing site in the Sea of ​​Tranquility before heading into a planned “remote retrograde orbit” that would take it farther from Earth than any previous human-estimated spacecraft.

“In terms of general system failures, we haven’t seen a single thing about the rocket or spacecraft that would cause us to question our reliability or our redundancy, so it was largely a nominal mission,” said Sarafin.

“There were a lot of things where our plans and predictions didn’t quite line up with what we thought from an engineering and modeling standpoint… but overall it was pretty much a green light.”

The Space Launch System rocket is the most powerful rocket in the world, generating 8.8 million pounds of thrust and a pressure wave that literally blew the doors of the launch platform elevators. NASA managers said the overall damage to the pad was minor and would be repaired in due course ahead of the next SLS launch in 2024.


That said, engineers struggle with two relatively minor glitches: engineers have to periodically restart the capsule’s star-tracking navigation sensors after unexpected auto-resets; and a problem with a component of the electricity distribution system. None of these are expected to affect the mission.

Looking ahead, Orion needs to fire up another critical thruster on Friday to actually enter its planned distant retrograde orbit, then perform a third burn on December 1 to break away from that trajectory. The fourth engine fired on December 5 is needed for another close lunar flyby.

This burnout, a “return flyby” maneuver, will launch Orion back toward Earth for a quick re-entry and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean west of San Diego on December 11.

Asked what he thought of the mission, given its smooth, relatively trouble-free start, Sarafin said: “We’re on our sixth flight day of a 26-day mission, so I’d give it a cautiously optimistic A-plus.” But he quickly added: “We take this very seriously. I will have a good rest on December 11th after the launch and recovery is complete.”

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