The Apollo 10 astronauts hold the record for the fastest speed humans have traveled. Can Nasa’s new project beat this 46 year old record?
We humans are obsessed with speed. Recent months, for instance, brought news that students in Germany have broken the record for the fastest accelerating electric car, and that the US Air Force plans to develop hypersonic jets that would travel at more than five times the speed of sound – that’s speeds in excess of 3,790mph (6,100km/h).
Those jets would carry no crew – but not because humans can’t travel at such high speeds. In fact, humans have already travelled many times faster than Mach 5. Is there some limit, however, beyond which hurtling bodies can no longer bear the strain of speed?
The current human speed record is shared equally by the trio of astronauts who flew Nasa’s Apollo 10 mission. On their way back from a lap around the Moon in 1969, the astronauts’ capsule hit a peak of 24,790mph (39,897km/h) relative to planet Earth. “I think a hundred years ago, we probably wouldn’t have imagined a human could travel in space at almost 40,000 kilometres per hour,” says Jim Bray of the aerospace firm Lockheed Martin.
But we could beat that record relatively soon. Bray is the director of the Orion crew module project for America’s space agency, Nasa. The Orion spacecraft is intended to carry astronauts into a low Earth orbit, and is a good bet for the vehicle that will break the 46-year-old record for the fastest we’ve ever travelled.
The Space Launch System, a new rocket that will ferry the Orion spacecraft aloft, should have its first crewed mission in 2021 – a flyby of an asteroid captured in lunar orbit – with a months-long mission to Mars then in the offing. At present, designers envision Orion’s typical maximum velocity in the neighbourhood of 19,900mph (32,000km/h). But the Apollo 10 speed record could be surpassed, even just sticking with Orion’s base configuration. “Orion is designed for many different destinations over its lifetime,” says Bray. “Its speed could well go a lot higher than we plan now.”