ORLANDO, Fla. — NASA officials said the Orion spacecraft traveled to its farthest distance from Earth on Monday, two days after breaking a record set by Apollo 13.
On Saturday, Orion, which launched atop the Space Launch System rocket from Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 16, surpassed the previous record of 248,655 miles from the planet, which was the farthest away from Earth astronauts Jim Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise traveled during their aborted 1970 moon-landing mission.
The uncrewed Orion, which has three mannequin passengers on board, reached 268,554 miles from Earth at 4:48 p.m. as part of the capsule’s distant retrograde orbit (DRO) around the moon, marking the halfway point of the 25.5-day mission.
“It was really an important phase of our mission,” said NASA’s Orion program manager Howard Hu during a Monday press conference. “It got us into a point where we feel really good getting to this part of the mission, and really an opportunity to I would say catch our breath a little bit.”
Retrograde means the orbiting spacecraft circles the moon opposite the moon’s spin and orbit of the Earth. The distant part means that Orion’s lunar orbit has reached around 40,000 miles from the moon’s surface.
Orion entered DRO on Friday after having performed a slingshot around the moon on its closest approach last week, coming in about 81 miles from the surface.
NASA plans to have Orion complete only one half of this orbit, so that on Thursday, NASA managers look to fire up its engines again to bring it back down for a close approach to the lunar surface. It will then swing back around the moon on Dec. 5 to begin its return on a speedy trajectory to Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11.
The No. 1 milestone for the mission is to prove Orion’s heat shields can withstand re-entry. The expected speed of 24,500 mph that would generate near 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit would also set a record for human-rated spacecraft.
“Artemis builds on Apollo,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Not only are we going farther but coming home faster, but Artemis is paving the way to live and work in deep space in a hostile environment to invent, to create and ultimately to go on with humans to Mars.”
So far mission objectives have been so much on target that teams are coming up with additional data to check while Orion is out in deep space.