NASA’s Orion capsule reaches the moon on its way to record-breaking lunar orbit | NASA

NASA’s Orion capsule reaches the moon on its way to record-breaking lunar orbit | NASA

NASA’s Orion capsule reached the moon Monday, whipped around its back and passed within 80 miles of the surface on its way to a record-breaking lunar orbit.

The close approach occurred when the crew capsule and three test dummies were on the far side of the moon.

Because of the half-hour communications blackout, flight controllers in Houston didn’t know if the critical engine firing was going well until the capsule emerged from behind the moon, more than 140,000 miles from Earth.

It is the first time a capsule has visited the moon since then NASA‘s Apollo program 50 years ago, and represented a huge milestone in the $4.1 billion test flight that began last Wednesday after Orion was launched into space on top of the huge Artemis rocket ship.

Orion’s flight path took him over the landing sites of Apollo 11, 12 and 14 – humanity’s first three landings on the moon.

The moon loomed larger and larger in the video beamed back earlier this morning as the capsule covered the last few thousand miles since detonating last Wednesday from Florida’s Kennedy Room Center, atop the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA.

“This is one of those days that you’ve thought and talked about for a very, very long time,” flight director Zeb Scoville said as he waited to resume contact.

As the capsule swung out from behind the moon, onboard cameras sent back a picture of Earth, a blue dot surrounded by blackness.

Orion had to orbit around the moon to pick up enough speed to enter the vast, lopsided lunar orbit. If all goes well, a new engine will place the capsule in that orbit on Friday 1.

This weekend, Orion will shatter NASA’s distance record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts — nearly 400,000 miles from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970.

And it will continue to reach a maximum distance from Earth next Monday at nearly 270,000 miles.

The capsule will spend nearly a week in lunar orbit before heading home. A Pacific splashdown is scheduled for December 11.

Orion has no lunar lander, a landing will not come until NASA astronauts try to make a lunar landing with SpaceX’s Starship in 2025. Before then, however, astronauts will tether to Orion for a ride around the moon as early as 2024.

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