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Orion Test Flight Launches
The United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket carrying NASA's first Orion deep space exploration craft takes off from its launchpad on Dec. 5, 2014 in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The heavy-lift rocket boosted the unmanned Orion capsule to an altitude of 3,600 miles and returned for a splashdown west of Baja California after a four-and-a-half hour flight.
"Liftoff at dawn! The dawn of Orion, for a new era of American space exploration!" launch commentator Mike Curie said as the rocket blasted through the clouds.
Spectators cheer as the rocket lifts off.
The Mobile Service Tower is rolled back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 37 on Dec. 3. 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.
NASA astronauts, from left, Rex Walheim, Jack Fischer and Cady Coleman, cheer as they watch the landing of the Orion test flight on a television at the Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 5 in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The Orion capsule floats after splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 5, 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.
• Gallery: Cosmic Triumph and Tragedy in Month in Space