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Artemis I returns from the moon with hopes to get astronauts back there soon

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

NASA's Orion spacecraft is back on earth after a 25-day mission around the moon. It's a critical test for the agency's newest Artemis lunar program, which plans to send astronauts on a similar trip. From member station WMFE, Brendan Byrne reports.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: When the Orion capsule hit Earth's atmosphere, it was traveling around 25,000 miles per hour. By the time it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean under a canopy of parachutes, the gumdrop-shaped capsule slowed to just 20 miles per hour.

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ROB NAVIAS: 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.

BYRNE: It was the end of Orion's journey that took it nearly 270,000 miles from Earth. The $4 billion mission, dubbed Artemis I, comes after years of development and delays for NASA's next chapter in human lunar exploration. This mission carried no crew but tested important systems of the spacecraft. NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

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BILL NELSON: This has been an extraordinarily successful mission.

BYRNE: One of the most critical pieces of hardware on Orion is its heat shield. NASA tested a brand-new one and tried a different kind of reentry called a skip. Orion dipped down into the atmosphere, then steered its way out, like swimming through the boundary of Earth and space, to pinpoint its landing spot. Orion's trip pushed the spacecraft to its limit, says NASA's Howard Hu.

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HOWARD HU: We've been able to accomplish over 122 of our flight test objectives that we had planned, and we added a bonus of 20 real-time flight test objectives as well.

BYRNE: What NASA learns from this mission will help the next one, a similar flight but with astronauts and a third trip to land humans on the moon. But space policy analyst Laura Forczyk says there's much still to be done. NASA needs new spacesuits and a lunar lander.

LAURA FORCZYK: Overall, this is a really good first step, but it's only the first step. It's the very beginning.

BYRNE: Exactly 50 years before Orion's splashdown, Apollo 17's Gene Cernan spoke humanity's last words on the moon. Quote, "we leave as we came and, God willing, we shall return with peace and hope for all mankind." With Artemis I, NASA is a step closer to fulfilling that promise. For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.