U.S. Navy divers attach a tending line as they secure NASA's Orion Capsule during recovery operations after it splashed down following a successful uncrewed Artemis I Moon Mission on December 11, 2022. Pool Photo by Mario Tama/UPI | License Photo
Dec. 11 (UPI) -- NASA's Orion capsule, after traveling 1.4 million miles through space, including orbiting the moon and collecting data, returned to Earth on Sunday.
The 25 1/2-day Artemis I mission landed in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico's Baja California at 12:40 p.m., NASA reported.
"Splashdown! From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the latest chapter of NASA's journey to the moon comes to a close. Orion back on Earth," announced Mission Control commentator Rob Navias.
The Orion capsule originally was slated to land near San Diego, but NASA officials said Thursday that rain, wind and large waves had moved into that area.
The mission's ending was on the 50th anniversary of the last Apollo moon landing in 1972.
"The splashdown of the Orion spacecraft ... is the crowning achievement of Artemis I," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. "From the launch of the world's most powerful rocket to the exceptional journey around the Moon and back to Earth, this flight test is a major step forward in the Artemis Generation of lunar exploration.
"It wouldn't be possible without the incredible NASA team. For years, thousands of individuals have poured themselves into this mission, which is inspiring the world to work together to reach untouched cosmic shores. Today is a huge win for NASA, the United States, our international partners, and all of humanity."
The 3,000-ton Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft launched at 1:47 a.m. Nov. 16 from pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The test flight cost $4 billion.
Orion stayed in space longer than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has done without docking to a space station, NASA said. Orion surpassed the record for distance traveled by a spacecraft designed to carry humans, previously set during Apollo 13.
Orion stayed in moon orbit for about a week.
The spacecraft captured pictures of Earth and images of the lunar surface and a "Earth rise."
It performed two lunar flybys, coming within 80 miles of the lunar surface.
Orion traveled nearly 270,000 miles from Erth, more than 1,000 times farther than where the International Space Station orbits Earth, according to NASA.
Before entering the Earth's atmosphere, the crew module separated from its service module, which is the propulsive powerhouse provided by European Space Agency.
The spacecraft traveled about 32 times the speed of sound -- 24,850 miles per hour -- as it hit the air. Compression waves cause the outside of the vehicle to heat to about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Within about 20 minutes, Orion slowed from nearly 25,000 mph to about 20 mph for its parachute-assisted splashdown.
Also, there was a 5½-minute communications blackout.
The recovery team on the USS Portland consists of personnel and assets from the U.S. Department of Defense, including Navy amphibious specialists, Space Force weather specialists, Air Force specialists, as well as engineers and technicians from NASA Kennedy, the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston and Lockheed Martin Space Operations.
Orion will return to shore in the United States and return by truck to Kennedy.
Teams will open the hatch and unload several payloads, including test manikins Commander Moonikin Campos, Helga and Zohar; the space biology experiments; Snoopy and the official flight kit. The capsule and its heat shield will undergo testing and analysis over several months.
"With Orion safely returned to Earth we can begin to see our next mission on the horizon which will fly crew to the Moon for the first time as a part of the next era of exploration," said Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate. "This begins our path to a regular cadence of missions and a sustained human presence at the Moon for scientific discovery and to prepare for human missions to Mars."
The capsule is designed to hold astronauts. NASA is planning to send humans to the moon, likely in 2025, and then Mars. The Artemis II mission with four people is scheduled to orbit the moon in 2024.
NASA's Orion Capsule splashes down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico's Baja California during recovery operations on its return to Earth on the Artemis I mission on December 11, 2022. Photo by Mario Tama/UPI | License Photo