Europe's first lunar "lamb-assador" has returned home to a hero's welcome as he prepares to be herded off on a celebratory post-flight tour.
"Shaun the Sheep," the title character from a popular animated television series, arrived back in England on Wednesday (March 29), three and a half months after he splashed down aboard NASA's Artemis 1 mission to the moon. Shaun, in the form of a 6-inch-tall (16 centimeters) stop motion model, was hailed for his service to the European Space Agency (ESA) during an event held at Aardman Animations, where his official astronaut portrait, a commemorative plaque and the documents attesting to his flight were unveiled.
"We've had many astronauts down the years, but Shaun is our first astronaut to go to the moon and beyond, travel 1.4 million miles [2.3 million kilometers] on Artemis 1 and is the first of several ESA astronauts who will be flying on Orion in the future," said David Parker, ESA's director of human and robotic exploration, in a call with collectSPACE.com. "I'm here at the Aardman Animations studio in Bristol, which happens to be my hometown, and I've seen Shaun this morning — he is looking great, he enjoyed the voyage and he's going to have a few tips to pass on to some of our new astronauts."
Related: 10 strange things NASA's Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft took to the moon
In November 2022, just after Artemis 1 launched, ESA announced its first new astronaut class in 13 years, in part to prepare for future missions to the moon. Among the recruits were five men and women who will report for training in April, including Rosemary Coogan, an astronomer from Northern Ireland, who joined Parker at the studio for Shaun's homecoming on Wednesday.
Shaun's place aboard the Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft was in recognition of ESA's role providing the power-providing service module for the mission.
"Half of the Orion spaceship was built in Europe," said Parker. "The Orion service module, which provides the power, propulsion and electricity for the astronauts, performed absolutely flawlessly during its [first] mission and returned the Orion capsule back to Earth and did its job, so we're super proud of that."
The "unusually clever" Shropshire lamb, which had his start as a character in Aardman's 'Wallace & Gromit" film series, flew inside the Official Flight Kit (OFK), a package of nearly 10,000 artifacts and mementos that were ferried to the moon and back as tokens of gratitude for those who made the trip possible.
"I feel immensely proud, not of my achievement, but really the whole studio's achievement that he's been on this exceptional adventure," Peter Lord, co-founder and creative director at Aardman, said in an interview with collectSPACE. "Frankly, I am amazed because it seems such a big deal. I mean, this billion-dollar project — and I don't know how many billions of dollars the project is — and the fact that Shaun was invited to ride along, it seems to me incredible."
The uncrewed Artemis 1 mission served as a precursor for returning astronauts to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years. The Artemis 1 Orion capsule entered a lunar distant retrograde orbit, flying farther into space than any human-, or sheep-rated spacecraft, has ever traveled.
Future Artemis missions will include ESA (human) astronauts as they become the first Europeans to work in lunar orbit and perhaps land on the moon's surface.
In preparation for his history-making flight, Shaun took part in an extensive astronaut training program, which ESA documented and presented in a series of blog posts leading up to the Nov. 16, 2022 launch. Now well rested, Shaun will resume his astronaut duties, this time traveling with ESA to space centers across Europe, where he will help the public learn more about what the agency has to offer for the future of exploration.
"He's going to visit our space technology center in the Netherlands, where most of our engineers and the people who run the project are based; the astronaut center, as well, in Cologne [Germany]; but also very importantly, Airbus in Bremen, which led the construction of the service module," said Parker.
Whether Shaun might fly again or where he will go after the tour is over, has yet to be decided. Lord, though, hopes Shaun will return home again.
"I really think he should come home. We'll keep him in a perfect state," said Lord. "He's just the first sheep in space."
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