NASA’s Orion capsule made a blisteringly fast return from the moon Sunday, parachuting into the Pacific off Mexico to conclude a test flight that should clear the way for astronauts on the next lunar flyby.
The incoming capsule hit the atmosphere at Mach 32, or 32 times the speed of sound, and endured reentry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) before splashing down west of Baja California near Guadalupe Island. A Navy ship quickly moved in to recover the spacecraft and its silent occupants — three test dummies rigged with vibration sensors and radiation monitors.
NASA needed a successful splashdown to stay on track for the next Orion flight around the moon, currently targeted for 2024. Four astronauts will make the trip. That will be followed by a two-person lunar landing as early as 2025.
Astronauts last landed on the moon 50 years ago Sunday. After touching down on Dec. 11, 1972, Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent three days exploring the lunar surface, the longest stay of the Apollo era. They were the last of the 12 moonwalkers.