After its 1.4-million-mile mission beyond the Moon and back, the Orion spacecraft for the Artemis I mission arrived back at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Dec. 30. The capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11 and was transported by truck across the country from Naval Base San Diego in California to Kennedy’s Multi Payload Processing Facility in Florida.
Now that Orion is back at Kennedy, technicians will remove payloads from the capsule as part of de-servicing operations, including Commander Moonikin Campos, zero-gravity indicator Snoopy, and the official flight kit. Orion’s heat shield and other elements will be removed for extensive analysis, and remaining hazards will be offloaded.
Artemis I was a major step forward as part of NASA’s lunar exploration efforts and sets the stage for the next mission of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion to fly crew around the Moon on Artemis II.
The Artemis I Orion spacecraft is on its way back to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After completing a 25.5-day, 1.4-million-mile journey beyond the Moon and back Dec. 11, the spacecraft was recovered from the Pacific Ocean and transported to U.S. Naval Base San Diego, where engineers prepared the spacecraft for its trek by truck to Kennedy. Orion is scheduled to arrive to Kennedy’s Multi Payload Processing Facility by the end of the year.
Once at Kennedy, technicians will open the hatch and unload several payloads, including Commander Moonikin Campos, zero-gravity indicator Snoopy, and the official flight kit as part of de-servicing operations. In addition to removing the payloads, Orion’s heat shield and other elements will be removed for analysis, and remaining hazards will be offloaded.
NASA also has released new aerial footage of Orion’s descent through the clouds and splashdown taken from an Unmanned Aircraft System or drone. View the new imagery of spacecraft’s return to Earth here.
Team members with NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems program successfully removed the Artemis I Orion spacecraft from the USS Portland Dec. 14, after the ship arrived at U.S. Naval Base San Diego a day earlier. The spacecraft successfully splashed down Dec. 11 in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California after completing a 1.4 million-mile journey beyond the Moon and back, and was recovered by NASA’s Landing and Recovery team and personnel from the Department of Defense.
Engineers will conduct inspections around the spacecraft’s windows before installing hard covers and deflating the five airbags on the crew module uprighting system in preparation for the final leg of Orion’s journey over land. It will be loaded on a truck and transported back to the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for post-flight analysis.
Before its departure, teams will open Orion’s hatch as part of preparations for the trip to Kennedy and remove the Biology Experiment-1 payload which flew onboard Orion. The experiment involves using plant seeds, fungi, yeast, and algae to study the effects of space radiation before sending humans to the Moon and, eventually, to Mars. Removing the payload prior to Orion’s return to Kennedy allows scientists to begin their analysis before the samples begin to degrade.
Once it arrives to Kennedy, Orion will be delivered to the Multi-Payload Processing Facility where additional payloads will be taken out, its heat shield and other elements will be removed for analysis, and remaining hazards will be offloaded.
The Orion spacecraft has been secured in the well deck of the USS Portland. The ship will soon begin its trip back to U.S. Naval Base San Diego, where engineers will remove Orion from the ship in preparation for transport back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for post-flight analysis.
Upon Orion’s successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California at 9:40 PST/12:40 EST Dec. 11, flight controllers in mission control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston spent about two hours performing tests in open water to gather additional data about the spacecraft, including on its thermal properties after enduring the searing heat of re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. Recovery personnel also spent time collecting detailed imagery of the spacecraft before beginning to pull the capsule into the USS Portland’s well deck.
The recovery process involved divers attaching a cable called a winch line and several additional tending lines attached to the crew module. The winch was used to pull Orion into a specially designed cradle inside the ship’s well deck and the other lines were used to control the motion of the spacecraft. The recovery team consists of personnel and assets from the U.S. Department of Defense, including Navy amphibious specialists and Space Force weather specialists, and engineers and technicians from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Lockheed Martin Space Operations.
Orion is expected to arrive to shore Dec. 13 with offload expected on Dec. 15.
NASA’s Orion spacecraft successfully completed a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean at 9:40 PST, 12:40 EST as the final major milestone of the Artemis I mission. Engineers will perform several additional tests while Orion is in the water and before powering down the spacecraft and handing it over to the recovery team aboard the USS Portland.
At the direction of the NASA recovery director, Navy divers and other team members in several inflatable boats will approach the spacecraft. When Orion is ready to be pulled into the ship’s well deck at the waterline, the divers will attach a cable, called the winch line, to pull the spacecraft into the ship and up to four additional tending lines to attach points on the crew module. The winch will pull Orion into a specially designed cradle inside the ship’s well deck and the other lines will control the motion of the spacecraft. Once Orion is positioned above the cradle assembly, technicians will drain the well deck and secure it on the cradle.
Once aboard the vessel, teams will take the spacecraft to U.S. Naval Base San Diego and soon return it to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for inspection. Technicians in Florida will thoroughly inspect Orion, retrieving data recorded on board, removing onboard payloads, and more.
Artemis I was the first integrated test of NASA’s deep space exploration systems – the Orion spacecraft, SLS rocket, and the supporting ground systems – and the first in a series of increasingly complex missions at the Moon. Through Artemis missions, NASA will establish a long-term lunar presence for scientific discovery and prepare for human missions to Mars.
NASA will host a post-splashdown news conference is targeted for 3:30 p.m. EST
Bill Nelson, NASA administrator
Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for the Exploration System Development Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters
Vanessa Wyche, director, Johnson
Janet Petro, director, Kennedy
Mike Sarafin, mission manager, NASA Headquarters
Howard Hu, Orion Program manager, Johnson
Emily Nelson, chief flight director, Johnson
Melissa Jones, recovery director, Kennedy
The crew module of NASA’s Orion spacecraft has successfully separated from its service module at 11:00 a.m. CST in preparation for the crew module’s return to Earth. The service module will burn up harmlessly in Earth’s atmosphere upon re-entry over the Pacific Ocean. The Artemis I trajectory is designed to ensure any remaining parts do not pose a hazard to land, people, or shipping lanes.
Next, the crew module will perform a skip entry technique, dipping into the upper part of Earth’s atmosphere and using that atmosphere, along with the lift of the capsule, to skip back out of the atmosphere, then reenter for final descent under parachutes and splash down. This technique enables the spacecraft to accurately and consistently splash down at the selected landing site for Artemis missions regardless of when and where they return from the Moon. During re-entry, the enormous heat generated as Orion encounters the atmosphere turns the air surrounding the capsule into plasma, which will briefly disrupt communications with the spacecraft.
Below are the upcoming re-entry milestones in CST:
Earth’s atmosphere initially will slow the spacecraft to 325 mph, then the parachutes will slow Orion to a safe splashdown speed of 20 mph or less as it descends through Earth’s atmosphere. Parachute deployment begins at an altitude of about five miles with three small parachutes pulling the forward bay covers away. Once the forward bay cover separates, two drogue parachutes will slow and stabilize the crew module for main parachute deployment. At an altitude of 9,500 feet and a spacecraft speed of 130 mph, three pilot parachutes will lift and deploy the main parachutes to slow Orion to a landing speed that ensures astronaut safety for crewed missions.
When Orion splashes down, the crew module uprighting system, also known as CMUS, deploys a series of five bright-orange helium-filled bags on the top of the capsule to upright the capsule in the event it stabilizes upside down. The system will deploy regardless of the landing position of the capsule, and it takes less than four minutes to upright the capsule if needed. The capsule must be upright for crew module communication systems to operate correctly and to help protect the health of the crew members inside on future missions.
Live coverage is underway on NASA Television, the agency’s website, and the NASA app for Orion’s return to Earth as part of the 25.5 day Artemis I flight test.
The sixth and final return trajectory correction burn occurred at 6:20 a.m. CST Sunday, Dec. 11. During the burn the auxiliary engines fired for 8 seconds, accelerating the spacecraft by .68 mph (.99 feet per second) to ensure Orion is on course for splashdown.
Orion’s crew module will separate from its service module, which is the propulsive powerhouse provided by ESA (European Space Agency), at 11:00 a.m. CST. The crew module will enter the Earth’s atmosphere at 11:20 a.m., and the spacecraft will splashdown with a parachute-assisted landing in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California at 11:39 a.m.
The Artemis I mission began with a successful liftoff of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket Nov. 16, from Launch Pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Over the course of flight test, flight controllers have tested Orion’s capabilities in the harsh environment of deep space to prepare for flying astronauts on Artemis II.
The Orion spacecraft is on its last full day in space with splashdown off the Baja Coast near Guadalupe Island targeted for 11:39 a.m. CST (12:39 p.m. EST) on Sunday, Dec. 11.
Engineers conducted the final Artemis I in-space developmental flight test objective to characterize temperature impacts on solar array wings from plumes, or exhaust gases. Once the solar array wing was in the correct test position, flight controllers fired the reaction control system thrusters using opposing thrusters simultaneously to balance the torque and test a variety of firing patterns. Engineers will perform several additional flight test objectives after Orion splashes down in the water and before powering down the spacecraft.
The fifth return trajectory correction burn occurred at 2:32 p.m. CST, Saturday, Dec. 10. During the burn the auxiliary engines fired for 8 seconds, accelerating the spacecraft by 3.4 mph (5 feet per second) to ensure Orion is on course for splashdown. The sixth and final trajectory correction burn will take place about five hours before Orion enters Earth’s atmosphere.
On Orion’s return to Earth, NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) will facilitate communications for the final return trajectory correction burn, spacecraft separation, re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere and splashdown. Shortly before the service module separates from the crew module, communication will be switched from NASA’s Deep Space Network to its Near Space Network for the remainder of the mission. Located in geosynchronous orbit about 22,000 miles above Earth, TDRS are used to relay data from spacecraft at lower altitudes to ground antennas. During re-entry, the intense heat generated as Orion encounters the atmosphere turns the air surrounding the capsule into plasma and briefly disrupts communication with the spacecraft.
Recovery forces have arrived on location off the coast of Baja where they will stand by to greet the spacecraft after its re-entry back into the atmosphere at 25,000 mph. On the ship, personnel are running through preparations and simulations to ensure the interagency landing and recovery team, led by Exploration Ground Systems from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is ready to support recovery operations. The team consists of personnel and assets from the U.S. Department of Defense, including Navy amphibious specialists and Space Force weather specialists, and engineers and technicians from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Lockheed Martin Space Operations.
Teams will recover Orion and attempt to recover hardware jettisoned during landing, including the forward bay cover and three main parachutes. A four-person team of engineers from Johnson will be aboard the U.S. Navy recovery ship using “Sasquatch” software to identify the footprint of hardware released from the capsule. The primary objective for the Sasquatch team is to help the ship get as close as possible to Orion for a quick recovery. A secondary objective is to recover as many additional elements as possible for analysis later.
Just after 2 p.m. CST Dec. 10, Orion was 113,453 miles from Earth and 239,432 miles from the Moon, cruising at 3,375 miles per hour.
Live coverage of Orion’s reentry and splashdown will begin at 11 a.m. EST on NASA TV, the agency’s website, and the NASA app. A post-splashdown briefing is scheduled for about 3:30 p.m.
Teams in Mission Control Houston conducted spacecraft system checks ahead of Orion’s planned splashdown on Dec. 11, while the Exploration Ground Systems recovery team made its way toward the landing area off the Baja Coast near Guadalupe Island.
Flight controllers activated the crew module reaction control system heater and conducted a hot-fire test for each thruster as planned. The five pulses for each thruster lasted 75 milliseconds each, and were conducted in opposing pairs to minimize attitude changes during the test. Thrust for the crew module propulsion system is generated from 12 monopropellant MR-104G engines. These engines are a variant of MR-104 thrusters, which have been used in other NASA spacecraft, including the interplanetary Voyagers 1 and 2.
Approximately 12,100 pounds of propellant have been used, which is 240 pounds less than estimated prelaunch, and leaves a margin of 2,230 pounds over what is planned for use, 324 pounds more than prelaunch expectations.
On its way back to Earth, Orion will pass through a period of intense radiation as it travels through the Van Allen Belts that contain space radiation trapped around Earth by the planet’s magnetosphere. Outside the protection of Earth’s magnetic field, the deep space radiation environment includes energetic particles produced by the Sun during solar flares as well as particles from cosmic rays that come from outside the galaxy.
Orion was designed from the start to ensure reliability of essential spacecraft systems during potential radiation events and can become a makeshift storm shelter when crew members use shielding materials to form a barrier against solar energetic particles.
For the uncrewed Artemis I mission, Orion is carrying several instruments and experiments to better understand the environment future crews will experience and provide valuable information for engineers developing additional protective measures. There are active sensors connected to power that can send readings to Earth during the flight, as well as passive detectors that require no power source to collect radiation dose information that will be analyzed after the flight.
Commander Moonikin Campos is equipped with two radiation sensors, as well as a sensor under the headrest and another behind the seat to record acceleration and vibration throughout the mission. The seat is positioned in a recumbent, or laid-back, position with elevated feet, which will help maintain blood flow to the head for crew members on future missions during ascent and entry. The position also reduces the chance of injury by allowing the head and feet to be held securely during launch and landing, and by distributing forces across the entire torso during high acceleration and deceleration periods, such as splashdown.
A crew is expected to experience two-and-a-half times the force of gravity during ascent and four times the force of gravity at two different points during the planned reentry profile. Engineers will compare Artemis I flight data with previous ground-based vibration tests with the same manikin, and human subjects, to correlate performance prior to Artemis II.
In addition to the sensors on the manikin and seat, Campos is wearing a first-generation Orion Crew Survival System pressure suit – a spacesuit astronauts will wear during launch, entry, and other dynamic phases of their missions. Even though it’s primarily designed for launch and reentry, the Orion suit can keep astronauts alive if Orion were to lose cabin pressure during the journey out to the Moon, while adjusting orbits in Gateway, or on the way back home. Astronauts could survive inside the suit for up to six days as they make their way back to Earth. The outer cover layer is orange to make crew members easily visible in the ocean should they ever need to exit Orion without the assistance of recovery personnel, and the suit is equipped with several features for fit and function.
Shortly before 2:30 p.m. CST on Dec. 9, Orion was traveling 171,500 miles from Earth and 214,200 miles from the Moon, cruising at 2,100 mph.
Watch the latest episode of Artemis All Access for a glimpse at the latest mission status and an inside look ahead of splashdown.
Live splashdown coverage will begin at 11 a.m. EST on Sunday, Dec. 11. Splashdown is scheduled at 12:39 p.m., and coverage will continue through Orion’s handover from Mission Control in Houston to Exploration Ground Systems recovery teams in the Pacific Ocean. Coverage will be live on NASA TV, the agency’s website, and the NASA app.
On flight day 23 of NASA’s Artemis I mission, the Orion spacecraft continues making the return trip to Earth, capturing photos and video along the way.
“At present, we are on track to have a fully successful mission with some bonus objectives that we’ve achieved along the way,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager. “On entry day, we will realize our priority one objective, which is to demonstrate the vehicle at lunar re-entry conditions, as well as our priority three objective, which is to retrieve the spacecraft.”
The mission management team met with the entry flight director and NASA recovery director as the planned splashdown of Orion Sunday, Dec. 11 is now about 72 hours away. They evaluated the weather and decided on a landing site in the Pacific Ocean near Guadalupe Island, south of the primary landing area. Watch the reentry preview briefing for more details.
Later tonight, flight controllers will conduct a final survey of Orion’s crew module and service module using cameras on each of the spacecraft’s four solar arrays. During the crew module inspection, flight controllers will be looking at the back shell made up of 1,300 thermal protection system tiles and will protect the spacecraft from the cold of space and the extreme heat of re-entry.
Just before re-entry, the crew module and service module will separate and only the crew module will return to Earth while the service module burns up in Earth’s atmosphere upon re-entry over the Pacific Ocean. The Artemis I trajectory is designed to ensure any remaining parts do not pose a hazard to land, people, or shipping lanes.
After separating from the service module, the crew module will prepare to perform a skip entry technique that enables the spacecraft to accurately and consistently splash down at the selected landing site. Orion will dip into the upper part of Earth’s atmosphere and use that atmosphere, along with the lift of the capsule, to skip back out of the atmosphere, then reenter for final descent under parachutes and splash down. This technique will allow a safe re-entry for future Artemis missions regardless of when and where they return from the Moon.
Earth’s atmosphere initially will slow the spacecraft to 325 mph, then the parachutes will slow Orion to a splashdown speed in about 10 minutes as it descends through Earth’s atmosphere. Parachute deployment begins at an altitude of about five miles with three small parachutes pulling the forward bay covers away. Once the forward bay cover separates, two drogue parachutes will slow and stabilize the crew module for main parachute deployment. At an altitude of 9,500 feet and a spacecraft speed of 130 mph, three pilot parachutes will lift and deploy the main parachutes. Those 116-foot-diameter parachutes of nylon broadcloth, or “silk,” will slow the Orion crew module to a splashdown speed of 20 mph or less.
The parachute system includes 11 parachutes made of 36,000 square feet of canopy material. The canopy is attached to the top of the spacecraft with more than 13 miles of Kevlar lines that are deployed in series using cannon-like mortars and pyrotechnic thrusters and bolt cutters. Learn more about Orion’s parachute system in the Artemis I reference guide.
NASA TV coverage of Artemis I’s return to Earth begins at 11 a.m. EST on Sunday, Dec. 11. The Orion spacecraft is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific Ocean at 12:40 p.m. near Guadalupe Island.
Just before 6:00 p.m. CST on Dec. 8, Orion was traveling 207,200 miles from Earth and 180,400 miles from the Moon, cruising at 1,415 mph.