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NASA Orion capsule buzzes moon, last big step before lunar orbit

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NASA's Orion capsule reached the moon Monday, whipping around the far side and buzzing the lunar surface on its way to a record-breaking orbit with test dummies sitting in 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.The close approach of 81 miles (130 kilometers) occurred as the crew capsule and its three wired-up dummies were on the far side of the moon.

Because of a half-hour communication blackout, flight controllers in Houston did not know if the critical engine firing went well until the capsule emerged from behind the moon, 232,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) from Earth.The capsule's cameras sent back a picture of the world — a tiny blue orb surrounded by blackness.“Our pale blue dot and its 8 billion human inhabitants now coming into view,” said Mission Control commentator Sandra Jones.The capsule accelerated well beyond 5,000 mph (8,000 kph) as it regained radio contact, NASA said.

Less than an hour later, Orion soared above Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969.“This is one of those days that you've been thinking about and talking about for a long, long time,” flight director Zeb Scoville said.Earlier in the morning, the moon loomed ever larger in the video beamed back, as the capsule closed the final few thousand miles since blasting off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, atop the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA.Orion needed to slingshot around the moon to pick up enough speed to enter the sweeping, lopsided lunar orbit.

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