Orion flys by the Moon
The Orion spacecraft, the moon and a distant crescent Earth are seen in this image from a camera on one of the craft’s solar panels. NASA photo

NASA’s Orion spacecraft flew just 79 miles above the Moon’s cratered surface on Monday and fired its main engine a last time to head for Earth and a splashdown off San Diego.

The engine ignited at 8:43 a.m. Pacific time and burned for 3 minutes and 27 seconds, changing the velocity of the spacecraft by approximately 655 mph.

“We’ve completed our return powered flyby burn and are heading home!” Nasa tweeted.

Later on Monday, Debbie Korth, deputy manager for NASA’s Orion program, spoke to reporters at a news briefing.

“We couldn’t be more pleased about how the spacecraft has been performing really beyond all our expectations,” she said.

The capsule will return to Earth on Dec. 11, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off San Diego where it will be recovered by a Navy amphibious ship.

“Last week, we completed our final rehearsal with the USS Portland, which will be our recovery ship for Artemis I,” said Melissa Jones, landing and recovery director at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The USS Portland practices recovering an Orion capsule. Navy photo

The spacecraft, which blasted off Nov. 16 on NASA’s Space Launch System — the most powerful rocket ever flown — is designed to carry four astronauts on missions of up to 21 days to the moon and beyond.

The Artemis I mission is a test of the entire system prior to sending astronauts around the moon in early 2024. It will be followed by a moon landing in the middle of the decade.

“Artemis I will be the first in a series of increasingly complex missions to build a long-term human presence at the Moon for decades to come,” according to NASA.

Updated at 9:20 p.m., Monday, Dec. 5, 2022

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.