Liftoff! Orion launches into history

Image 1 of 39

With a brilliant launch into the cloudy Florida skies, NASA took a small step towards another giant leap.

The space agency's Orion capsule – America's first new man-rated spacecraft in 30 years – successfully blasted off on an unmanned test flight Friday, safely splashing down a few hours later.

“It's hard to have a better day than today. It's very fun, very exciting,” offered NASA's Orion program manager, Mark Geyer. “Of course, part of the reason it's exciting is because it's a difficult mission, it's a tough environment to fly through, it's tough objectives that we set for this flight. But it appears that Orion and the Delta IV Heavy were nearly flawless.”

The mission marked the beginning of a new space age for the U.S. NASA hopes that, in a few years, Orion will be ready to carry astronauts beyond the orbit of the earth – perhaps back to the moon, Mars, or even an asteroid.

The massive rockets required for that job will be the most powerful ever built, but aren't ready yet so NASA went ahead with this flight test using the heavy-lift version of the Delta IV -- currently the strongest rocket in the American fleet.

The triple-core booster rose slowly from its seaside launch pad just after sunrise Friday in a fiery ascent with a roar to rival the space shuttle. The orange-and-white rocket almost seemed to hang in the sky as it powered towards the low clouds, disappearing from view moments after liftoff.

The launch came one day late after a series of technical and weather delays scrubbed Thursday morning's attempt. The crowd around Cape Canaveral Air Force Station seemed smaller than Thursday's estimated 21,000, but there were plenty of cheers as Orion headed for space.

NASA sent Orion on two orbits before bringing the craft home for a Pacific splashdown. The capsule was boosted to 3,600 miles – 16 times higher than the space station's orbit – in order to get enough speed to simulate a return from the moon.

"This is the first human-rated spacecraft that's gone beyond [low earth orbit] in 42 years, by my count. So it is a big deal,” Mike Hawes, the Lockheed Martin program manager for Orion, said before the flight.

A primary goal of the flight was to test the reentry systems. Even though Orion is, in some ways, a larger version of the old Apollo capsules, it has a modern heat shield made of different materials, and it got a trial by fire as it plunged back to Earth at 20,000 miles an hour.

The second cheer of the morning went up from mission managers and astronauts at Kennedy Space Center as the capsule splashed down on time and on target just before 11:30. The U.S. Navy was to haul the spacecraft aboard the USS Anchorage and ferry it back to San Diego for examination.

NASA is already working on building the next Orion capsule, which they hope to fly aboard the new Space Launch System, using boosters and engines derived from the space shuttle program. A second unmanned test flight is scheduled for late 2017 or early 2018.

“We'll dig through the data. The first look looks good from a data standpoint,” said NASA's associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier. “We'll definitely learn some things from this flight – that's why it was a test flight. It will really help us as we take those next steps into the solar system with humans.”

And for the team, that's what it's all about. Wrapping up his post-flight comments, Hawes made reference to the work it has taken to move beyond the shadow of the Apollo and shuttle programs.

“We've kind of now done something for the first time for our generation,” he said, becoming emotional. “It's a good day.”