The gumdrop-shaped capsule splashed down on time at 9:40am PST (1740 GMT) off the coast of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula after deploying various sets of parachutes to brake its speedy return from space.
Orion blasted off on Nov. 16 from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, atop Nasa’s towering next-generation Space Launch System (SLS), now the world’s most powerful rocket and the biggest Nasa has built since the Saturn V of the Apollo era.
The debut SLS-Orion voyage kicked off Apollo’s successor program, Artemis, 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.
By coincidence, the return to Earth of Artemis I unfolded on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 17 moon landing of Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt on Dec. 11, 1972. They were the last of 12 Nasa astronauts to walk on the moon during a total of six Apollo missions starting in 1969.
Re-entry marks the single most critical phase of Orion’s journey, testing whether its newly designed heat shield will withstand atmospheric friction expected to raise temperatures outside the capsule to nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius).