NASA entered a new era of space exploration on Friday when its Orion capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after going farther from the planet than any spacecraft built for humans in more than 40 years.
The maiden test flight -- made without astronauts aboard -- is a step toward eventually getting astronauts to deep space: first to help snag an asteroid, and then, NASA hopes, to Mars. Orion lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 7:05 a.m., a day after gusty wind and problems with several valves forced officials to cancel the mission.
But on Friday, the 4.5-hour mission appeared to go off flawlessly. "There's your new spacecraft, America," said Mission Control commentator Rob Navias shortly before Orion hit the water.
As it sent back stunning images broadcast on NASA’s website, Orion orbited the Earth twice, shot up to an altitude of about 3,600 miles above the Earth. That was farther than any spacecraft designed for humans had gone since the Apollo 17 moon mission in 1972.
It splashed into the Pacific Ocean at 11:29 a.m.
The successful test flight was cheered by ebullient officials from NASA and its partners in the mission: prime contractor Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin, which built Orion, and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed and Boeing, which built the Delta IV Heavy rocket that launched Orion into orbit.
Moments after liftoff, NASA spokesman Mike Curie said it marked "the dawn of Orion and the new era of American space exploration."
In the post-flight press conference, Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion program manager, said: " It’s hard to have a better day than today." And he described the Orion and the Delta IV as "nearly flawless."
The images of Earth seen from such a great distance, he said, "reminded us here we are again now -- the United States leading exploration out into the solar system."
Since 1972, human flights have been restricted to the orbit level of the International Space Station. But Friday's flight went 15 times as far.
NASA plans another test flight without astronauts in 2018. A crew is scheduled aboard Orion in about 2021.
Sometime in the 2020s, NASA plans to capture an asteroid with a robotic spacecraft, then drag it to the moon’s orbit where it would connect with the Orion. Astronauts would then be able to take samples from the asteroid.
"Just the idea of having a human around the moon interacting with an asteroid -- that’s mind boggling," NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said Friday. "We are very confident we can do this."
The big target, however, remains Mars, which NASA says astronauts could reach sometime in the 2030s.
But for all the excitement of Friday’s launch and talk of grand plans to go to Mars, NASA has been hampered by tight budgets and doesn’t have the funding for a mission to the red planet. Critics say that the Mars mission exists on paper only.
While the Orion was initially part of a program, called Constellation, designed to return to the moon, its mission changed after the Obama administration killed Constellation and made Mars the goal. Friday's mission used the Delta IV. But future Orion missions would use the new Space Launch System rocket, or SLS, which is still being developed.
"The SLS remains a big question mark -- both in terms of its development and funding, as well as political support," wrote Marco Caceres, a senior space analyst with the Teal Group, in his newsletter. "Without the SLS, Orion is like a Cadillac without wheels."
Caceres and others have warned that the SLS project must be complete before a plausible timetable can be put on reaching Mars.
"Orion may be a starting point," he wrote. "But it's a bit of a stretch to say we're on our way to Mars."
Friday's mission was designed to test some of Orion's riskiest systems, especially its heat shield, which withstood temperatures as high as 4,000 degrees when the capsule hit the atmosphere traveling at about 20,000 mph. Another big test was the series of parachutes designed to slow the capsule before it splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean off the Baja California coast.
The test flight comes after the October explosion of an unmanned Orbital Sciences rocket that was to supply the space station and the recent crash of a Virgin Galactic spacecraft that killed the co-pilot. Officials said before Friday's test flight that they were well aware of the risks involved in space flight.
Mike Hawes, Lockheed's Orion program manager, said the data collected form the mission will be "enormously helpful," as officials prepare for future flights. He also reflected on the beginning of his career, when he worked alongside officials from the Apollo mission.
"We’ve now finally done something for the first time for our generation," he said. "It’s a good day."