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NASA starts assessing Orion capsule for refurb

Would you ride to the Moon in a sightly used spaceship? Yeah, it's got some miles on it …

NASA's Orion capsule – built to send the first woman and another man to the Moon – has arrived at a US naval base in San Diego, California, and will be dragged ashore for inspection.

The podule just returned from a relatively short trip in space. As part of the Artemis I mission, it was launched unmanned atop America's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket as a dress rehearsal of sorts. It's hoped the Orion will in future missions ferry human crews to the Moon. For now, NASA is testing out the pod in the cold, unforgiving void beyond Earth's atmosphere.

This particular mission – have Orion circle the Moon and return home – suffered a rocky start. The SLS rocket carrying the capsule into space was delayed for months by technical glitches and nasty weather. When it finally launched in November, the capsule’s 25-day journey around the Moon and back to our planet was smooth.

Orion traveled 1.4 million miles (2.25 million km) around the Moon, before returning to Earth and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. The US Navy retrieved the spacecraft and ferried it back to Naval Base San Diego aboard the amphibious ship USS Portland this week. It will be offloaded and returned to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

When Orion arrives, officials will begin post-flight analysis. NASA will examine the capsule and its myriad hardware components. The spacecraft has to be hardy enough to survive outer space and the scorching journey back to Earth through its atmosphere. During its return, the capsule endured temperatures of 5,000 °F (2,760 °C) as it barrelled through the atmosphere.

Some parts of Orion will likely be reused for the upcoming Artemis II mission if they're in good condition. Guidance, navigation, and control systems; radio communications antennas; transponders; and video processing hardware are the top candidates for recycling. NASA wants to reuse more components, such as the pressure vessel and heat shield, in the future to keep operating costs low – Orion is supposed to be ultimately reusable, after all.

Artemis I tested the flight capabilities of Orion and the SLS heavy-launch vehicle. Artemis II will be more ambitious and trickier as NASA hopes to send a crew of four astronauts inside the capsule aboard the rocket to orbit the Moon and return to Earth. Plans call for that mission to fly as soon as 2024.

Artemis III – still on the drawing board and not scheduled as much of the spacecraft and hardware for it doesn't even exist yet – will be the mission to land the first woman and another man on the lunar surface, more than 50 years since humans took that one giant leap for mankind. ®

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