KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – Atop the most powerful rocket available, NASA's next generation space capsule Orion blasted off Friday morning against the backdrop of a rising sun at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and later landed with a "bull's-eye splashdown" in the Pacific Ocean.

"Liftoff at dawn, the dawn of Orion and a new era of American space exploration," said Michael Curie, NASA announcer.

Four and a half hours later, his colleague Rob Navias declared the splashdown, 270 miles west of Baja California, Mexico, a bull's-eye. "America has driven a golden spike as it crosses a bridge into the future," Navias said.

The mission began flawlessly and NASA repeatedly called its readings "perfect." Six minutes into the flight, the rocket successfully jettisoned its three boosters, and the second stage ignited. That stage's burn ended 18 minutes into the flight as the spacecraft entered Earth orbit.

The launch went off on NASA's second attempt after wind and technical problems scrubbed a Thursday morning try.

But that was forgotten when the Delta IV Heavy rocket and Orion rumbled into the sky, to the delight of thousands of people along the waterfronts of Brevard County.

"I have always dreamed of being an astronaut," said Lizzi Gunn, 24, of Kissimmee, Fla., who watched the liftoff from Kennedy Space Center. "I'm so proud of this country for doing it and deciding we are going to Mars."

The 4 ½ hour, unmanned mission gave NASA a chance to test America's new do-everything spacecraft. In coming decades, Orion is expected to carry astronauts deep into space to the moon, asteroids, Mars and beyond.

The launch literally is the beginning of NASA's next big thing — deep space exploration — culminating in a Mars visit in about 20 years.

"This is Day 1 of the Mars era," proclaimed NASA administrator Charles Bolden.

Orion entered two orbits of Earth. And 3 hours and 6 minutes after launch it swung out to its peak height of 3,604 miles up, higher than any spacecraft designed to carry humans has gone since Apollo. A few minutes later, Orion jettisoned the last piece of the Delta rocket, the second stage, and its service module, flying free for the first time.

Shown with spectacular video provided from the capsule itself and a NASA drone, Orion reached a re-entry speed of 20,000, deployed three sets of parachutes and splash down in the Ocean 4 hours and 24 minutes after liftoff.

NASA and Lockheed-Martin, which developed Orion, were able to gather much of the data they want during the flight, but a lot more will only be available off the capsule's recorders, after it is recovered.

The Navy is in charge of recovery. Orion then will be taken back to Kennedy Space Center, returning before Christmas, Geyer said.

Orion's future is contingent on congressional funding. Both the House and Senate appropriation bills include more money for the Orion program than had been requested by President Barack Obama, and NASA's chief Florida supporters are encouraged, provided Congress actually approves a federal spending plan in the next week.

After the launch, Sen. Bill Nelson, at Kennedy Space Center, predicted the Orion program will now reignite popular excitement about the space program that was lost with the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. He compared today's launch to the unmanned test launches of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, which all sparked national pride.

"As they envision Americans being in this space craft, the American people will get excited again and they are already getting excited," Nelson said.

U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, whose district includes Kennedy Space Center, said Orion was going through "the first paces of its future."

"Our job up here is to try to make sure that comes sooner than later, to try to make sure it happens," Posey said from his Washington office. "But this is all about watching that baby take its first steps."

The next big test is scheduled for 2018, when NASA's powerful new rocket, the Space Launch System, is ready. That will take another unmanned Orion for a trip around the moon.

The SLS is far more powerful, capable of 8.4 million pounds of thrust, about four times as much as the Delta IV Heavy. Orion and the SLS will be the backbone of NASA's long-term human space exploration plans.

Bolden said his granddaughter recently reminded him of this long-term potential and vision: "Don't get hung up on Mars, because there are other places to go once we get there."

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(Marco Santana of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.)

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