Halfway done: Orion reaches farthest distance from Earth on Artemis I mission

On Nov. 20, 2022, the fifth day of the 25.5-day Artemis I mission, a camera mounted on the tip of one of Orion’s solar array wings captured this footage of the spacecraft and the moon. (NASA/TNS)
On Nov. 20, 2022, the fifth day of the 25.5-day Artemis I mission, a camera mounted on the tip of one of Orion’s solar array wings captured this footage of the spacecraft and the moon. (NASA/TNS)

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.

"It's incredible how smooth this mission's gone, but it is a test, and that's what we do," Nelson said. "We stress it and test it."

If all goes well, NASA can move forward with its planned crewed orbital mission to the moon -- Artemis II -- planned for no earlier than May 2022, but that could slip since it takes about two years from when the crew is named before it can launch, according to NASA astronaut Stan Love.

"Nothing until this flight gets back safely," he said ahead of liftoff at KSC. "I would expect in the spring of 2023, we would hear who's going to be on the next one."

That said, Love expects to be named a capsule communicator (CAPCOM) from mission control in Houston for Artemis II and work has been rolling on it for months.

"We know who our flight directors are, we know who our CAPCOMs are. We know who a lot of our flight controllers are and we're getting ready. We just don't know who our crew is," he said.

It isn't until Artemis III that NASA aims to return humans, including the first woman, back to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

That mission is planned for no earlier than 2025, with successive lunar missions planned for about once a year after, although, again each mission's target dates can be delayed.

"It's possible that schedule may change," Love said. "If you've been reporting space for a while, you probably know that space dates are not always 100% reliable."

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