NASA's Orion capsule makes closest approach to moon since Apollo 17

NASA's Orion capsule makes closest approach to moon since Apollo 17

In this handout video grab courtesy of NASA TV, the Earth is visible as a crescent in the minutes after Orion finished its engine burns around the moon on December 5, 2022. HANDOUT NASA TV AFP The un-crewed Orion capsule of NASA's Artemis I mission sailed within 80 miles 130 km of the lunar surface, achieving the closest approach to the moon for a spacecraft built to carry humans since Apollo 17 flew half a century ago.

The lunar flyby of the capsule was a week after Orion reached its farthest point in space, nearly 270,000 miles from Earth while midway through its 25 day mission, the US space agency said on its website.

Orion passed about 79 miles above the lunar surface on Monday as the spacecraft fired its thrusters for a powered flyby burn designed to change the vehicle's velocity and set it on course for its flight back to Earth.

NASA said the 3 -- 1 2 minute burn would be the last major spaceflight maneuver for Orion before it was due to parachute into the ocean and splash down on December 11.

The last time a spacecraft designed for human travel came as close to the moon as Orion was the last mission of the Apollo program, Apollo 17, which carried Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt to the lunar surface 50 years ago this month. They were the last of 12 NASA astronauts who walked on the moon during six Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972.

Orion has no astronauts aboard - just a simulated crew of three mannequins - it flew farther than any previous crew-class spacecraft on the 13th day of its mission. It reached a point 268,563 miles from Earth, nearly 20,000 miles beyond the record distance set by the crew of Apollo 13 in 1970, which aborted its lunar landing and returned to Earth after a nearly catastrophic mechanical failure.

ALSO READ: NASA's Artemis mission heads to the moon on its debut test flight.

The much-delayed and highly anticipated launch of Orion last month kicked off Apollo's successor program Artemis, which aimed at returning astronauts to the lunar surface this decade and establishing a sustainable base there as a stepping stone to future human exploration of Mars.

A crewed Artemis II flight around the moon and back could come as early as 2024, followed by the first lunar landing of astronauts with Artemis III within a few years. It is expected that astronauts to Mars will take at least another decade and a half to reach.

Debbie Korth, deputy manager for NASA's Orion program, told reporters on Monday that they couldn't be happier about how the spacecraft has performed beyond all our expectations.

Orion was carried to space atop NASA's towering, next-generation Space Launch System SLS rocket, which blasted off on November 16 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

READ MORE: NASA tests seen as a boost to the chances of returning to the moon.

The first flight of the combined SLS rocket and the Orion capsule, built by Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp, was under contract with NASA.

The main objective of Orion's inaugural flight is to test the durability of its heat shield as it enters Earth's atmosphere at 24,500 miles per hour, much faster than spacecraft returning from the International Space Station.