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Orion launch marks new era for NASA

Spectators cheer as the Orion spacecraft, atop a rocket, lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Friday. (Associated Press)
Spectators cheer as the Orion spacecraft, atop a rocket, lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Friday. (Associated Press)
Scott Powers Tribune News Service

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – 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.

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, Florida, 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 four-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.

“This is day one 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.

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

Orion’s future is contingent on congressional funding. Both the House and Senate appropriation bills now under consideration include more money for the Orion program than had been requested by President Barack Obama.

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.

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