CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s new Orion spacecraft made a “bullseye” splashdown in the Pacific on Friday following a dramatic test flight that took it to a zenith height of 3,600 miles and ushered in a new era of human exploration aiming for Mars.

The unmanned test flight ended 4½ hours after it began and achieved at least one record: flying farther and faster than any capsule built for humans since the Apollo moon program.

NASA is counting on future Orions to carry astronauts beyond Earth’s orbit, to asteroids and ultimately the grand prize: Mars.

“There’s your new spacecraft, America,” Mission Control commentator Rob Navias said as the Orion capsule neared the water.

The journey began with a sunrise liftoff witnessed by thousands of NASA guests. Parts of the spacecraft peeled away exactly as planned, falling back toward Earth as onboard cameras provided stunning views of our blue, cloud-covered planet.

NASA is now “one step closer” to putting humans aboard Orion, said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. He called it “Day One of the Mars era.”

Sluggish rocket valves and wind halted the launch Thursday, but everything went NASA’s way Friday as the Delta IV rocket carried Orion into orbit. The first-stage boosters detached and fell away into the Atlantic as the spacecraft soared from Florida to South Africa and beyond.

NASA was aiming for a peak altitude of 3,600 miles on Orion’s second lap around the planet, in order to give the capsule the necessary momentum for a scorchingly high-speed re-entry over the Pacific. Engineers want to see how the heat shield — the largest of its kind ever built — holds up when Orion comes back through the atmosphere traveling 20,000 mph and enduring 4,000 degrees.

The atmosphere at Kennedy Space Center was reminiscent of the shuttle-flying days. After more than three years since the last shuttle flight, NASA reveled in all the attention.

Roads appeared to be less jammed before dawn for try two, and NASA was uncertain how many of the estimated 27,000 invited guests returned. Nonetheless, the press site remained jammed, the hotels packed and the excitement level high. “It’s a big day for the world, for people who know and like space,” Bolden said, observing the crowds.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.