Orion capsule splashdown
The Orion capsule splashes down in the Pacific Ocean under three parachutes. Caroline Brehman/Pool via REUTERS

NASA‘s Orion spacecraft splashed down successfully in the Pacific Ocean near Guadalupe Island on Sunday morning, paving the way for future astronaut flights to the Moon and beyond.

The capsule dropped out of the sky under three giant parachutes in view of Navy recovery ships waiting 250 miles south of San Diego. The landing occurred at 9:40 a.m. Pacific time.

“This was a challenging mission, and this is what mission success looks like,” NASA’s Artemis I mission manager Mike Sarafin told reporters after splashdown, adding that his team didn’t immediately notice any technical problems.

Orion‘s return marked the first attempt of a risky “skip entry” re-entry technique, in which the craft dipped into the upper part of Earth’s atmosphere, skipped out of the atmosphere, then re-entered for its final descent.

NASA says the skip entry will help ensure a pinpoint landing location and in the future will allow astronauts to return to Earth under lower g-forces than usual.

The agency considered re-entry the single most-critical phase of the mission, testing whether a newly designed heat shield can withstand atmospheric friction and safely protect astronauts who would be on board.

“It is our priority-one objective,” Sarafin said at a briefing last week. “There is no arc-jet or aerothermal facility here on Earth capable of replicating hypersonic re-entry with a heat shield of this size.”

The capsule was recovered by the amphibious transport dock USS Portland and will be transported to San Diego, arriving at Naval Base San Diego early Tuesday morning.

The recovery team also included the littoral combat ship USS Montgomery to help keep the landing area clear.

During the 25-day mission, Orion circled the Mon in a long elliptical orbit stretching far into space, then accelerated to over 25,000 miles per hour for its re-entry to Earth.

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 4:45 p.m., Monday, Dec. 11, 2022

Reuters contributed to this article.

USS Portland is seen off Coronado four days before the Orion splashdown. Photo by Chris Stone
USS Portland is seen off Coronado four days before the Orion splashdown. Photo by Chris Stone

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