NASA's Orion beats Apollo 13's distance record for a human-rated spacecraft

"Houston, we have a new record."
Chris Young
Artemis I artist's concept
Artemis I artist's concept

NASA/Liam Yanulis 

NASA's Artemis I Orion capsule broke a new spaceflight record.

The uncrewed Orion reached a distance from Earth of 249,666 miles ( from 401,798 kilometers) on Saturday, November 26, at 10:17 am. ET, meaning it surpassed a record set by Apollo 13 in 1970 for the furthest distance traveled from Earth by a spacecraft designed to carry humans.

NASA's Orion spacecraft broke a massive record

The previous record was set by Apollo 13's crewed Odyssey command module in 1970 when it traveled 248,655 miles (400,171 kilometers) from Earth. Orion crossed that threshold at 8:40 am. ET on November 26 before going on to extend the record.

"Houston, we have a new record," NASA's Johnson Space Center Twitter account announced shortly afterward, alluding to the famous phrase used when the Apollo 13 crew encountered a problem on their way to the Moon.

"Artemis I was designed to stress the systems of Orion, and we settled on the distant retrograde orbit as a really good way to do that," Jim Geffre, Orion spacecraft integration manager, explained in a media briefing. "It just so happened that with that really large orbit, high altitude above the Moon, we were able to pass the Apollo 13 record. But what was more important though, was pushing the boundaries of exploration and sending spacecraft farther than we had ever done before."

Apollo 13 hero remembered on Artemis I moon mission

It's fitting that Artemis I took the distance record away from Apollo 13. That Apollo mission's original flight path didn't actually call for a record-setting flight. An explosion halfway through the mission forced NASA's hand, meaning ground control had to map a new return route to Earth.

Ironically, the quickest route back actually took Apollo 13's Odyssey command module further from Earth than any human-rated spacecraft had gone before. Considering the command module's limited oxygen supply, NASA's ground control team decided to use the Moon's gravity to slingshot Apollo 13 back to Earth.

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The late NASA engineer Arturo Campos played a pivotal role in bringing the Apollo 13 astronauts β€” Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise β€” back homes safe. Campos wrote the emergency plan that leveraged the Moon's gravity and set the record simultaneously, providing safe passage for the human crew.

Now, the Orion spacecraft that beat Apollo 13's record carries a mannequin, or "Moonikin", named after Campos. That test dummy will help NASA analyze conditions aboard the spacecraft ahead of the Artemis II mission set for 2024 that will send humans around the Moon and back. Artemis III, meanwhile, will finally send humans to the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.

The Orion spacecraft has captured a number of stunning images of Earth, of the lunar surface, and of itself as it carries out its journey. NASA expected the uncrewed capsule to return to Earth for a splashdown over the Pacific Ocean on December 11. November 26