Splashdown! NASA’s Orion spacecraft lands after ‘picture perfect’ test flight

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NASA's Orion spacecraft during a test launch.

NASA's Orion spacecraft during a test launch. (Photo: NASA TV)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA's new Orion spacecraft lifted off from Florida's Cape Canaveral on schedule Friday morning, an uncrewed test flight that begins what the space agency hopes is a new era of manned space exploration.

The capsule and Delta IV Heavy rocket cleared the service tower and minutes later shed the boosters without any apparent hitches.

Eight minutes into the flight, Delta IV's upper stage was carrying Orion to its preliminary orbit, traveling around 14,000 mph.

"The launch itself is just a blast," NASA Orion program manager Mark Geyer quipped on NASA TV shortly after liftoff, "as you see how well the rocket did. It was exciting to see."

Orion orbited Earth once at a relatively low altitude before heading much higher -- 3,600 miles above the planet, or 15 times higher than the International Space Station -- for the second orbit.

The Delta IV's upper stage pushed Orion into that second orbit before separating.

A camera on board a helicopter showed the Orion spacecraft floating on the Pacific Ocean after a successful test flight. (Photo: NASA TV)

A camera on board a helicopter showed the Orion spacecraft floating on the Pacific Ocean after a successful test flight. (Photo: NASA TV)

Four and a half hours after launch, Orion splashed down in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles off the coast of Baja California. Two U.S. Navy ships, the amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage and the Military Sealift Command rescue and salvage ship USNS Salvor, helped NASA recover the capsule.

The launch comes a day after NASA scrubbed its first attempt. Thursday morning's launch was postponed because of a failure of some fuel valves to close in the booster rockets.

Orion is expected to send back some amazing pictures of Earth, NASA said. If the weather cooperates, NASA said a drone will provide a live video feed of the splashdown.

New beginning for space agency on road to Mars

It looks like a throwback to the Apollo era, but NASA’s new spaceship is roomier and designed to go far beyond the moon — it’s expected to carry astronauts to an asteroid and eventually Mars.

This is a huge, historic deal for NASA and U.S. space science. It’s also a big deal for two Colorado companies that are critical to the Orion program. United Launch Alliance builds the rocket that will carry Orion into space. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor that’s building the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

Orion spaceship. Photo: NASA

This first flight didn’t carry any astronauts, but it will move NASA closer to getting back in the crewed spaceflight business.

The U.S. has had to pay Russia’s space agency to launch astronauts to the space station since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.

Orion’s crew module is designed to carry four people on a 21-day mission. But it could support six astronauts for shorter missions. By comparison, the Apollo capsules held three astronauts and were out in space for about six to 12 days.

While no time line is set in stone, NASA has said it would like to send astronauts to an asteroid in the mid 2020s and then on to Mars in the 2030s.

Orion will be launched on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, the largest rocket available. NASA is building its own launch system for Orion.

Though Orion’s first flight won’t have people on it, it won’t go up empty. It will carry up the names of more than million people packed on a dime-sized microchip.

“Sesame Street” is sending up some mementos to inspire students about spaceflight including Cookie Monster’s cookie and Ernie’s rubber ducky.

Also going up — an oxygen hose from an Apollo 11 lunar spacesuit and a small sample of lunar soil.

A Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science will be on board and lockers filled with flags, coins, patches, poetry and music.

CNN contributed to this report.

Rendering of Orion in Earth's orbit. Image courtesy: NASA

Rendering of Orion in Earth's orbit. Image courtesy: NASA

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