CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA's Orion deep-space capsule hit a historic peak during its first robotic test flight on Friday, and then splashed down into the Pacific Ocean for a picture-perfect ending.
On the way down, the cone-shaped spacecraft went through a "trial by fire" during which the heat of atmospheric re-entry rose as high as 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or twice the heat of molten lava.
"There is your new spacecraft, America. ... Orion is back on Earth. America has driven a golden spike as it crosses a bridge into the future," NASA spokesman Rob Navias declared as the capsule hit the water, 275 miles west of Baja California. Recovery ships converged to bring Orion back to shore.
The finale came less than four and a half hours after Orion's launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. On Thursday, gusty winds and a balky fuel valve kept the United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket grounded, but nothing went wrong on Friday.
"Liftoff at dawn! The dawn of Orion, and a new era of American space exploration!" launch commentator Mike Curie said as the rocket blasted through the clouds just after sunrise.
NASA and its commercial partners are designing Orion to take astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid in the 2020s, and to Mars and its moons in the 2030s. For that reason, NASA portrayed Friday's test flight as a first step toward deep-space exploration. The mission was known as Exploration Flight Test 1, or EFT-1.
"I would describe it as the beginning of the Mars era," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said on NASA TV.
Orion's flight marked the first time since the Apollo 17 moon mission in 1972 that a vehicle designed to carry humans went beyond low Earth orbit.
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Mission managers said the rocket and capsule performed almost perfectly. "It was just a blast to see how well the rocket did," said Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion program manager.
After Orion made its first circuit around the planet, the rocket's upper stage kicked it into a second, highly eccentric orbit that looped 3,604.2 miles from Earth. That's 15 times farther away than the International Space Station.
After hitting the top of its orbit at 10:11 a.m. ET, Orion screamed back toward Earth at about 20,000 mph — which is 80 percent of the velocity that a spacecraft returning from the moon would encounter. NASA's Navias said Orion was projected to experience peak acceleration of 8.26 G's — far more than the 3 G's that astronauts felt during the space shuttle era.
This particular Orion was missing a lot of the components that would be needed for a crewed flight, and it's not carrying humans. Instead, it's outfitted with more than 1,200 sensors to monitor how its communication and control systems dealt with heightened radiation levels in the Van Allen belts, how its heat shield handled the re-entry temperatures, and how its parachutes slowed the craft down for splashdown.
Only a couple of glitches came to light: During the flight, a video processing unit on Orion reset itself, perhaps because of the radiation. Also, two of Orion's five airbags didn't fully deploy after the splashdown, but the three that did were enough to keep the capsule floating upright.
"We'll learn just an enormous amount from what we did today, and when we get all that data back, that will be a big deal for us," said Mike Hawes, Orion project manager for prime contractor Lockheed Martin.
Two Navy recovery ships — plus a complement of smaller boats and helicopters — worked to pick up the capsule while a camera-equipped NASA drone transmitted video from overhead. The ships will bring the spacecraft to Naval Base San Diego, and from there, Orion will be trucked cross-country back to Florida.
Although there were no people aboard Orion, NASA packed a few personages in the payload — including Sesame Street characters and a Captain Kirk action figure. Other mementos flown on the capsule included a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil, an oxygen hose from an Apollo spacesuit and a wide variety of recordings, photos, patches, pins and poems.
Data collected during and after the flight will be analyzed to help the Orion team prepare for the next uncrewed test flight in 2018. A more advanced version of Orion is to be launched by NASA's giant Space Launch System rocket, or SLS, which is currently under development. During the 2018 flight, known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, Orion would fly around the moon and back.
The first crewed Orion flight is scheduled for 2021, and that could involve sending astronauts around the moon for the first time since Apollo. Farther-out expeditions, including the trip to an asteroid and the buildup to Mars missions, would follow every year or so.
This week's test was managed by Orion's prime contractor on NASA's behalf, Lockheed Martin, at a cost of $370 million. Geyer said developing the Orion spacecraft costs NASA about $1 billion per year, and NASA estimates that work on the SLS rocket will cost roughly $7 billion between now and its 2018 test flight.
NASA has not yet settled on the designs for the landers and space habitats that would be required for a Mars mission, but officials say they expect those components will be ready to go by the 2030s.
Critics have targeted the multibillion-dollar price tag for Orion and SLS, as well as the long development schedule.
"The primary purpose of the flight was to support traditional contractors, and the purpose of the breathless promotion is to assure the porkmasters on the Hill that NASA is committed to keep wastefully pouring funds into their states and districts," space consultant Charles Lurio said in an email. "It actively assures that billions are lost that should go to the basic R&D really needed to get to Mars."
At the same time that NASA is funding the development of Orion and SLS, it's supporting the commercial development of less expensive "space taxis" that would carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, starting in 2017 or so. In September, the agency set aside $6.8 billion to help SpaceX and Boeing build such space taxis.