Video of the looming moon and our pale blue planet more than 230,000 miles in the distance left workers “giddy” at Houston’s Johnson Space Center, home to Mission Control, according to flight director Judd Frieling. Even the flight controllers themselves were “absolutely stounded.”
“Just smiles across the board,” said Orion program manager Howard Hu.
The close approach of 81 miles occurred as the crew capsule and its three wired-up dummies were on the far side of the moon. Because of a half-hour communication blackout, flight controllers in Houston did not know if the critical engine firing went well until the capsule emerged from behind the moon. The capsule’s cameras sent back a picture of the Earth — a tiny blue dot surrounded by blackness.
The capsule accelerated well beyond 5,000 mph as it regained radio contact, NASA said. Less than an hour later, Orion soared above Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969. There were no photos of the site because the pass was in darkness, but managers promised to try for pictures on the return flyby in two weeks.
Orion needed to slingshot around the moon to pick up enough speed to enter the sweeping, lopsided lunar orbit. Another engine firing will place the capsule in that orbit Friday.
This coming weekend, Orion will shatter NASA’s distance record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts — nearly 250,000 miles from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970. And it will keep going, reaching a maximum distance from Earth next Monday at nearly 270,000 miles .
The capsule will spend close to a week in lunar orbit, before heading home. A Pacific splashdown is planned for Dec. 11.
Mission manager Mike Sarafin was delighted with the progress of the mission, giving it a “cautiously optimistic A-plus” so far.
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