CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s new Orion spacecraft reached its zenith 3,604 miles above Earth on its orbital test flight Friday, the farthest a spacecraft built for humans has traveled from the planet in four decades. Orion’s capsule then began a dramatic trip back to conclude a mission ushering in a new era of exploration that could put people on Mars one day. Earth shrank from view through the unmanned spaceraft’s window during its three-hour journey to peak altitude. No spacecraft designed for humans had gone so far from the planet since Apollo 17 — NASA’s final moon shot — 42 years ago. NASA needed to send Orion that high to build momentum for the crew module’s 20,000-mph, 4,000-degree plunge through the atmosphere entry over the Pacific. This part of the operation was the most critical: seeing how the heat shield would hold up before putting humans on board. On cue, the service module was detached, leaving Orion flying free for the first time for the ride home. Orion’s debut was designed to be brief — just 41/2 hours from launch to splashdown, with two orbits of Earth. And it’s NASA’s first new vehicle for space travel since the shuttle. “Very exciting,” said NASA’s Orion program manager, Mark Geyer. 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 gusts halted the launch Thursday, but everything went NASA’s way Friday as the Delta IV rocket carried Orion into orbit. 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!” 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 joined dozens of space fliers on hand for this historic send-off. He talked up Orion’s future in sending crews to Mars and the importance of becoming what he called “a multi-planetary 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. His enthusiasm was shared by Chris Tarkenton, who traveled from Poquoson, Virginia, to watch from the nearby causeway. “It’s been a while since we’ve been able to launch something of this magnitude,” Tarkenton said. “Awe inspiring.” 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 wanted 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 endured the high-radiation Van Allen belts; engineers wondered whether they might falter. Orion flew more than 14 times higher than the International Space Station; the six station astronauts watched the events unfold via a live TV feed. 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 build a fleet of the capsules. The earliest 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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