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SALT LAKE CITY — NASA's unmanned Orion crew capsule came within 81 miles of the lunar surface on Monday, less than a week into a 25-day flight that's the first step in a multi-phase program to put astronauts back on the moon, and beyond.
The Orion spacecraft, carrying three dummies outfitted in spacesuits and monitoring gear, is the first vehicle designed for humans to visit the moon since the last Apollo astronauts left their footprints, and a pretty cool moon rover, on the surface in 1972.
After its lunar close encounter, Orion headed for an orbit that will take it 40,000 miles past the moon and some 270,000 miles from Earth. Orion will be on a lunar orbit path for about a week before it heads for home and a Pacific splashdown on Dec. 11.
The $4.1 billion Artemis I mission got off the ground last Wednesday following months of delays that included two hurricane strikes and a pair of scrubbed launch attempts. The launch marks the first step in NASA's multiphase plan to put astronauts back on the moon, and eventually Mars.
The world's most powerful rocket, the Space Launch System, topped by the Orion crew capsule, lifted off from pad 39B at Cape Canaveral's Kennedy Space Center at 1:47 a.m. Eastern time on Wednesday.
During a Monday press briefing, NASA engineers celebrated Orion's moon flyby and a mission that, since achieving liftoff, is going well. Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin said he was delighted with the progress of the mission, giving it a "cautiously optimistic A-plus" so far, per the Associated Press.
On Friday, Sarafin told reporters that NASA has had to troubleshoot more than a dozen "funnies" with the Orion capsule, but, overall the spacecraft is performing "really well," according to CNN.
One problem that cropped up was related to Orion's star tracker, a system that uses a map of the cosmos to tell engineers on the ground how the spacecraft is oriented. Some data readings weren't coming back as expected, but NASA officials chalked that up to a learning curve that comes with flying a new spacecraft.
"We worked through that, and there was some great leadership by the Orion team," Sarafin said.
What is the Artemis mission?
The crewless Artemis I mission is scheduled to last just over 25 days on a flight that will allow NASA experts to test the new SLS components, many of which have been repurposed from the old space shuttle program and other systems, as well as the Orion space capsule.
That capsule, the eventual home for future space travelers, will be carried into lunar orbit where it will take a spin around the moon and then head back to earth for a fiery plunge through the atmosphere at some 25,000 mph before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean at the end of the mission.
Artemis I is just the first in a three-phase program aiming to put astronauts back on the surface of the moon for the first time since the final Apollo moon visit in December 1972.
Artemis II, currently anticipated for sometime in 2024, will head to space with a four-person crew in the Orion capsule that will fly the craft around the moon in further testing. Then, if all goes according to NASA's current plan, the SLS/Orion package will return on a mission that will include a landing on the moon's surface in 2025.
Along the way, NASA wants to put a small space station, the Lunar Gateway, in orbit around the moon and has future plans that include a moon base station, the Artemis Base Camp.
Why does NASA want to return to the moon?
In a posting on the Artemis missions' website, NASA lists a few reasons why it's devoting billions of dollars to making moon landings, once again, a priority.
"We're going back to the moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits and inspiration for a new generation of explorers: the Artemis Generation," NASA says. "While maintaining American leadership in exploration, we will build a global alliance and explore deep space for the benefit of all."
While a return to the moon smacks a little of "been there, done that," NASA says it's committed to accomplishing some other first benchmarks as part of the series of Artemis missions, including extending manned exploration deeper into the solar system.
"With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before," NASA says in a web posting. "We will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the moon. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars."
SLS rocket fun facts
NASA says its SLS launch system stands at 322 feet high — taller than the Statue of Liberty — and weighs 5.75 million pounds when loaded with fuel.
During launch and ascent, the SLS produces 8.8 million pounds of maximum thrust, 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rockets that propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon.