Dawn of Orion: NASA launch opens new era in space

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Liftoff for NASA's Orion Spaceship

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- NASA's new Orion spacecraft circled the planet Friday on a high-stakes test flight meant to usher in a new era of human exploration leading ultimately to Mars.

The unmanned journey began with a sunrise liftoff witnessed by thousands of NASA guests. Parts of the spacecraft peeled away exactly as planned, falling back toward Earth as onboard cameras provided stunning views of our blue, cloud-covered planet.

Orion's debut will be brief - just 4 1/2 hours from launch to splashdown, with two orbits of Earth. But for the first time in 42 years, NASA is sending a spacecraft built for humans farther than a couple hundred miles from Earth. The previous time was the Apollo 17 moon shot.

And it's NASA's first new vehicle for space travel since the shuttle.

"Very exciting," NASA's Orion program manager, Mark Geyer, said early in the flight. "We still have a bunch to go."

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Dawn of Orion: NASA launch opens new era in space
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - DECEMBER 04: A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket carrying NASA's first Orion deep space exploration craft sits on its launch pad as it is prepared for a 7:05 AM launch on December 4, 2014 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The heavy-lift rocket will boost the unmanned Orion capsule to an altitude of 3,600 miles, and returning for a splashdown west of Baja California after a four and half hour flight. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
NASA's Orion spacecraft, atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket, lifts off on its first unmanned orbital test flight from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
CAPE CANAVERAL , FL - December 5: The space craft Orion lifted off with the use of a Delta IV Heavy rocket Friday, December 5, 2014 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Orion fitted with United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy rocket traveled into space to orbit Earth twice before returning into the Pacific Ocean near the coast of San Diego. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
The NASA Orion space capsule atop a Delta IV rocket, in its first unmanned orbital test flight, lifts off from the Space Launch Complex 37B pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
NASA's Orion spacecraft, atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket, lifts off on its first unmanned orbital test flight from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
NASA's Orion spacecraft, atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket, lifts off on its first unmanned orbital test flight from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
NASA's Orion spacecraft, atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket, lifts off on its first unmanned orbital test flight from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - DECEMBER 05: NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and his wife Jackie Bolden watch as the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with NASA's Orion spacecraft mounted atop, lifts off from Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 37 on December 5, 2014 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The heavy-lift rocket is prepared for a 7:05 launch tomorrow morning and it will boost the unmanned Orion capsule to an altitude of 3,600 miles, and returning for a splashdown west of Baja California after a four and half hour flight. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
NASA's Orion spacecraft, atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket, lifts off on its first unmanned orbital test flight from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - DECEMBER 05: The United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket carrying NASA's first Orion deep space exploration craft takes off from the launch pad on December 5, 2014 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The heavy-lift rocket will boost the unmanned Orion capsule to an altitude of 3,600 miles, and returning for a splashdown west of Baja California after a four and half hour flight. . (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
NASA's Orion spacecraft, atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket, lifts off on its first unmanned orbital test flight from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
The NASA Orion space capsule atop a Delta IV rocket, in its first unmanned orbital test flight, lifts off from the Space Launch Complex 37B pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Photographers follow the launch of the NASA Orion space capsule atop a Delta IV rocket, in its first unmanned orbital test flight, from the Space Launch Complex 37B pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
After a 22-mile journey from the Launch Abort System Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, the Orion Spacecraft arrives at Space Launch Complex 37B at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The test flight for Orion is scheduled to launch on Dec. 4. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
The NASA Orion space capsule atop a Delta IV rocket, in its first unmanned orbital test flight, lifts off from the Space Launch Complex 37B pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - DECEMBER 04: A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with NASA's Orion spacecraft mounted atop is seen illuminated in the distance in this long exposure photograph taken early at Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 37 on December 4, 2014 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The heavy-lift rocket is prepared for a 7:05 launch tomorrow morning and it will boost the unmanned Orion capsule to an altitude of 3,600 miles, and returning for a splashdown west of Baja California after a four and half hour flight. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
NASA's Orion spacecraft, atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket, sits on the launch pad before its first scheduled unmanned orbital test flight from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
A NASA Orion capsule on top of a Delta IV rocket lifts off on its first unmanned orbital test flight from Complex 37 B at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014 at Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
A NASA Orion capsule on top of a Delta IV rocket lifts off on its first unmanned orbital test flight from Complex 37 B at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014 at Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - DECEMBER 05: A long camera exposure photographs the Orion team members watching the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with NASA's Orion spacecraft mounted atop, lifts off from Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 37 on December 5, 2014 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The heavy-lift rocket is prepared for a 7:05 launch tomorrow morning and it will boost the unmanned Orion capsule to an altitude of 3,600 miles, and returning for a splashdown west of Baja California after a four and half hour flight. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - DECEMBER 04: A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket carrying NASA's first Orion deep space exploration craft sits on its launch pad as it is prepared for a 7:05 AM launch on December 4, 2014 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The heavy-lift rocket will boost the unmanned Orion capsule to an altitude of 3,600 miles, and returning for a splashdown west of Baja California after a four and half hour flight. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
NASA's Orion spacecraft, preparing for it's first flight, arrives at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Orion is scheduled for a test flight in early December. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
NASA's Orion spacecraft, preparing for it's first flight, departs the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building on its way to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Orion is scheduled for a test flight in early December. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Technicians make final preparations on the 18,000-pound Orion deep space exporation vehicle that was soon to be dropped into a pool of water with an impact pitch of 43-degrees after being lifted high enough on a gantry to allow it on release to swing at 47 MPH(76.6 kph) on January 6, 2012, to simulate all parachutes being deployed and landing in a worse case senario in rough seas at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. This type of extreme angle landing isn't likely to occur but is an essential part of thorough testing. The Orion would eventually be launched by a Delta IV heavy rocket and the multi-destination deep-space crew vehicle is currently slated to visit a asteroid. The US space agency has already spent $5-billion(USD) on the capsule and it's first orbital flight test is scheduled for early 2014. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
The new Orion crew capsule is catapulted into the air on Thursday, May 6, 2010 at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., during a test of Orion's launch-abort system, which will whisk astronauts and the capsule to safety in case of a problem on the launch pad, such as a fire, or during the climb to orbit. The Orion capsule was originally designed to take astronauts back to the moon. But President Obama in February killed NASA's $100 billion plans to return to the moon, redirecting the money for new rocket technology research. (AP Photo/Craig Fritz)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 27: A worker pushes a cart past an Orion capsule mock-up inside the (SVMF) Space Vehicle Mock-Up Facility at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center on August 27, 2013 in Houston, Texas. The facility is home to a full size mock-up of the International Space Station where astronauts train prior to service. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
NASA's Orion spacecraft, preparing for it's first flight, arrives at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Orion is scheduled for a test flight in early December. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
A mock up of the 18,000-pound Orion deep space exporation vehicle is lifted at a high impact pitch of 43-degrees and lifted high enough on the gantry to allow it on release to swing at 47 MPH(76.6 kph) into a pool of water January 6, 2012, to simulate all parachutes being deployed and landing in a worse case senario in rough seas at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. This type of extreme angle landing isn't likely to occur but is an essential part of thourgh testing. The Orion would eventually be launched by a Delta IV heavy rocket and the multi-destination deep-space crew vehicle is currently slated to visit a asteroid. The US space agency has already spent $5-billion(USD) on the capsule and it's first orbital flight test is scheduled for early 2014. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
A technician flips over the mock up of the 18,000-pound Orion deep space exporation vehicle that was dropped into a pool of water with an impact pitch of 43-degrees after being lifted high enough on the gantry to allow it on release to swing at 47 MPH(76.6 kph) on January 6, 2012, to simulate all parachutes being deployed and landing in a worse case senario in rough seas at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. This type of extreme angle landing isn't likely to occur but is an essential part of thorough testing and the final design would feature an onboard uprighting system. The Orion would eventually be launched by a Delta IV heavy rocket and the multi-destination deep-space crew vehicle is currently slated to visit a asteroid. The US space agency has already spent $5-billion(USD) on the capsule and it's first orbital flight test is scheduled for early 2014. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
NASA's Orion spacecraft, preparing for it's first flight, moves toward the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Orion is scheduled for a test flight in early December. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
In this image provided by the U.S. Navy, sailors assigned to the amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington practice recovering an Orion capsule Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013 into the well deck of the USS Arlington as part of NASA's first key Orion stationary recovery test at Naval Station Norfolk. NASA is partnering with the U.S. Navy to develop procedures to recover the Orion capsule and crew after splashdown. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy, Seaman Andrew Schneider)
This Wednesday Feb. 19, 2014 photo released by NASA shows a test version of the Orion spacecraft, tethered inside the well deck of the USS San Diego prior to testing between NASA and the U.S. Navy. NASA and the Navy suspended the test Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 off the coast of San Diego after a problem was discovered. (AP Photo/NASA)
This Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 photo released by NASA shows crews testing a test version of Orion's forward bay cover, NASA's next-generation space capsule. NASA and the Navy suspended the test Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 off the coast of San Diego after a problem was discovered. (AP Photo/NASA)
The service structure is rolled away from NASA's Orion spaceship early Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Orion is scheduled to lift off later this morning on a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket on its first unmanned orbital test flight. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - DECEMBER 03: In this handout provided by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket carrying NASA's first Orion deep space exploration craft is seen at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 37, December 3, 2014 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The heavy-lift rocket is prepared for a 7:05 launch tomorrow morning and it will boost the unmanned Orion capsule to an altitude of 3,600 miles, and returning for a splashdown west of Baja California after a four and half hour flight. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
This photo provided by NASA-TV, shows the view from the Orion spacecraft atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket as it climbs to orbit during the first test flight Friday Dec. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/NASA-TV)
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NASA is now "one step closer" to putting humans aboard Orion, said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. He called it "Day One of the Mars era."

Sluggish rocket valves and wind halted the launch Thursday, but everything went NASA's way Friday as the Delta IV rocket carried Orion into orbit. The first-stage boosters detached and fell away into the Atlantic as the spacecraft soared from Florida to South Africa and beyond.

NASA launch commentator Mike Curie fed the enthusiasm in the gathered crowds, calling it "the dawn of Orion in a new era of American space exploration!"

NASA aimed for a peak altitude of 3,600 miles on Orion's second lap around the planet, in order to give the capsule the necessary momentum for a scorchingly high-speed re-entry over the Pacific. Engineers want to see how the heat shield - the largest of its kind ever built - holds up when Orion comes back through the atmosphere traveling 20,000 mph and enduring 4,000 degrees.

The atmosphere at Kennedy Space Center was reminiscent of the shuttle-flying days, but considerably more upbeat than that last mission in 2011.

Astronaut Rex Walheim was aboard that final shuttle flight and among the dozens of spacefliers on hand for Orion's historic send-off. He talked up Orion's future in sending crews to Mars and the importance of becoming a multiplanetary species.

"You have that excitement back here at the Kennedy Space Center and it's tinged with even more excitement with what's coming down the road," Walheim said.

In Houston, NASA's Mission Control took over the entire operation once Orion was aloft. The flight program was loaded into Orion's computers well in advance, allowing the spacecraft to fly essentially on autopilot. Flight controllers - all shuttle veterans - could intervene in the event of an emergency breakdown.

And in the Pacific off the Mexican Baja coast, Navy ships waited for Orion's return.

The spacecraft is rigged with 1,200 sensors to gauge everything from heat to vibration to radiation. At 11 feet tall with a 16.5-foot base, Orion is bigger than the old-time Apollo capsules and, obviously, more advanced.

NASA deliberately kept astronauts off this first Orion.

Managers want to test the riskiest parts of the spacecraft - the heat shield, parachutes, various jettisoning components - before committing to a crew. In addition, on-board computers were going to endure the high-radiation Van Allen belts; engineers wondered whether they might falter.

Friday's Orion - serial number 001 - lacked seats, cockpit displays and life-support equipment for obvious reasons. Instead, bundles of toys and memorabilia were on board: bits of moon dust; the crew patch worn by Sally Ride, America's first spacewoman; a Capt. James Kirk collector's doll owned by "Star Trek" actor William Shatner, and more.

Lockheed Martin Corp. already has begun work on a second Orion, and plans to eventually build a fleet of the capsules. The earliest that astronauts might fly on an Orion is 2021. An asteroid redirected to lunar orbit is intended for the first stop in the 2020s, followed by Mars in the 2030s.

The company handled the $370 million test flight for NASA from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, opting for the Delta IV rocket this time given its heft. It's the most powerful unmanned rocket in the U.S. right now. The entire rocket and capsule, topped by a launch abort tower, stretched 242 feet and weighed 1.6 million pounds - an "incredible monster," according to Bolden.

To push Orion farther out on future flights, NASA is developing a megarocket known as Space Launch System or SLS. The first Orion-SLS combo will fly around 2018, again without a crew to shake out the rocket.

NASA's last trip beyond low-Earth orbit in a vessel built for people was the three-man Apollo 17 in December 1972. Orion will be capable of carrying four astronauts on long hauls and as many as six on three-week hikes.

Bolden, a former astronaut and now NASA's No. 1, called Mars "the ultimate destination of this generation," but said his three young granddaughters think otherwise, telling him, "Don't get hung up on Mars because there are other places to go once we get there."

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