The U.S. space agency’s Orion capsule reached the moon on Monday, whipped around the other side and zoomed across the lunar surface on its way to a record-breaking orbit with test dummies taking place for astronauts.

It’s the first time a capsule has visited the moon since NASA’s Apollo program 50 years ago, and represents a huge milestone in the $4.1 billion test flight that began last Wednesday.

Russia and China also have lunar ambitions and in 2021 had announced a partnership to build a lunar research station. That seems to have come to a halt after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. Russia was not invited to or mentioned during talks about China’s space plans at the International Astronautical Congress in September.

China has put a lunar rover on the moon, and earlier this month added the last module to his Tiangong manned space station.

Orion is part of NASA Artemis program, which aims to put the first woman and the first person of color on the moon in the coming years. Orion sat on top of the space agency’s most powerful missile ever, the Space Launch System, or SLS, as it is blown away from Cape Canaveral, Florida in the US in the early hours of Wednesday morning, on its way to lunar orbit.

On Saturday, Orion sent back its first pictures of the moon.

The 130 km (81 mi) approach took place on Monday when the crew capsule and its three wired puppets were on the far side of the moon. Due to a half-hour communications blackout, flight controllers in Houston, Texas were unsure if the critical engine firing was going well until the capsule emerged from behind the Moon, 370,000 km (230,000 mi) from Earth.

The capsule’s cameras sent back an image of Earth — a small blue sphere surrounded by blackness.

“Our light blue dot and its eight billion human inhabitants are now coming into view,” said Mission Control commentator Sandra Jones.

The capsule accelerated well above 8,000 km/h (5,000 mph) when it regained radio contact, NASA said. Less than an hour later, Orion hovered over Tranquility Base, where American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969, becoming the first humans on the moon.

SLS Rocket arcs across the night sky as it launches from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida
NASA’s next-generation lunar rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket carrying the Orion crew capsule, lifts off from Launch Complex 39-B on the Artemis 1 unmanned mission to the moon, as seen from Sebastian, Florida, USA, in November 16, 2022 [Joe Rimkus Jr/Reuters]

“This is one of those days that you think about and talk about for a long time,” said Flight Director Zeb Scoville.

Earlier in the morning, the moon had been getting bigger in the backbeamed video, as the capsule covered its last few thousand miles since launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

Orion had to orbit around the moon to pick up enough speed to enter the vast, lopsided lunar orbit. Flight controllers evaluated the data flowing back to determine if the engine launch proceeded as planned. Another firing will place the capsule in that elongated orbit on Friday.

This coming weekend, Orion will shatter NASA’s distance record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts — nearly 400,000 km (250,000 miles) from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970. 433,000 km (270,000 miles).

The capsule will spend nearly a week in lunar orbit before heading home. A Pacific splashdown is scheduled for December 11.

Orion has no lunar lander; a landing won’t come until NASA astronauts try to make a lunar landing with SpaceX’s Starship in 2025. Before then, astronauts will tether Orion for a ride around the moon as early as 2024.

NASA executives said they were pleased with the mission’s progress. The Space Launch System rocket performed extremely well on its debut, they told reporters late last week.

However, the 98-meter (322-foot) rocket caused more damage than expected at the Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad. The force of the 4 million kilograms (8.8 million pounds) of launch thrust was so great that it ruptured the elevator’s blast doors.

Four previous launch dates had been scrubbed or delayed by engine problems, a hurricane and a tropical storm.

NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket explodes
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket explodes from Cape Canaveral, Florida on November 16, 2022 as part of the Artemis program [Mike Tracy/Al Jazeera]

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