CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA's newest space vehicle, Orion, accomplished its first test flight with precision and pizazz Friday, shooting more than 3,600 miles out from Earth for a hyperfast, hot return not seen since the Apollo moon shots.
For a space agency still feeling the loss of its shuttles, the four-hour voyage opened a new era of human space exploration, with Mars as the plum. It even brought some rocket engineers to tears.
"There's your new spacecraft, America," Mission Control's Rob Navias said as the unmanned Orion capsule came in for a Pacific splashdown after two orbits of Earth.
NASA is counting on future Orions to carry astronauts out into the solar system, to Mars and beyond.
The next Orion flight, also unmanned, is four years off, and crewed flights at least seven years away given present budget constraints. But the Orion team - spread across the country and out in the ocean, is hoping Friday's triumphant splashdown will pick up the momentum.
"We challenged our best and brightest to continue to lead in space," lead flight director Mike Sarafin said with emotion as he signed off from Mission Control in Houston. "While this was an unmanned mission, we were all on board Orion."
W. Michael Hawes, a former NASA official who now leads the Orion program for prime contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., choked up as he recalled the pre-shuttle days.
"We started with all the Apollo guys still there. So we've kind of now finally done something for the first time for our generation," he said, pausing for composure. "It's a good thing."
Orion splashed down 270 miles off Mexico's Baja peninsula, just a mile from the projected spot - "a bull's-eye" according to NASA. Navy ships quickly moved in to transport the crew module 600 miles to San Diego, where it was expected Monday. From there, it will be loaded onto a truck and returned to Cape Canaveral just in time for Christmas.
Preliminary test reports were encouraging: Not only did the capsule arrive intact, all eight parachutes deployed and onboard computers withstood the intense radiation of the Van Allen belts surrounding Earth. What's more, everything meant to jettison away did so as Orion soared into space.
"It's hard to have a better day than today," said Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion program manager.
Sensors placed inside and out of the crew module will tell the full story: "Our big focus now is to get that data from those 1,200 sensors so they can pore over it in the next month or so," Geyer said.
Most critical was the heat shield covering Orion's bottom, the largest of its kind ever made. NASA wanted to be sure it would hold before committing to a human mission.
Orion reached a peak altitude of 3,604 miles, higher than any crew module since NASA's final manned moon mission, Apollo 17, in 1972. That's more than 14 times higher than the International Space Station.
The capsule came in over the Pacific at 20,000 m.p.h. and endured 4,000 degrees. In just 11 minutes, it slowed to 20 m.p.h. for splashdown. A crew would have endured as much as 8.2 Gs, or 8.2 times the force of Earth gravity, double the Gs of a returning Russian Soyuz capsule, according to NASA.
Earth shrank from view through Orion's capsule window during its trip out into space, and stunning images were relayed back home. Having part of the window frame in the picture drove home the fact that this will be an astronaut's view from inside, Geyer said.