NASA, understandably pleased with the outcome of its Orion space capsule that may someday take astronauts to an asteroid or to Mars, called its first test launch, flight and recovery a "textbook" mission.
After two orbits around the Earth during which the operational reliability of the uncrewed capsule's flight-control and propulsion systems was tested, Orion splashed down at around 11:30 a.m. EST Friday about 630 miles southwest of San Diego, where a small fleet of recovery vessels awaited.
"It was just such a textbook spaceflight," said NASA astronaut Rex Walheim, a member of Orion's development team. "That's what we want for our first flight."
In the 5-hour test flight the Orion spacecraft traveled farther than any spacecraft designed to carry humans has in more than 40 years, the space agency said.
All of the systems critical to safety of future crews on Orion, including its heat shield, avionics, computers, heat shield, parachutes and key spacecraft separation events were tested during the flight, NASA officials said.
"We really pushed Orion as much as we could to give us real data that we can use to improve Orion's design going forward," said Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager. "In the coming weeks and months we'll be taking a look at that invaluable information and applying lessons learned to the next Orion spacecraft already in production for the first mission atop the Space Launch System rocket."
After recovery of the capsule by personnel from NASA, the U.S. Navy and capsule builder Lockheed Martin, Orion would be returned to the U.S. Naval Base San Diego in the coming days, NASA said. From there it will be transported by truck back to Cape Canaveral in Florida.
The launch of Orion atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket was watched by crew members aboard the International Space Station.
Orion is the first spacecraft to travel beyond the space station's low-Earth orbit since 1972, the year of the launch of Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon.
On its reentry into Earth's atmosphere at 20,000 mph, Orion's heat shield had to withstand temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it slowed the spacecraft to the point where it could begin deploying eight parachutes in sequence to bring it to a safe splashdown.
NASA is now "one step closer" to putting humans aboard Orion, said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Jr., calling the successful launch and recovery of Orion "Day One of the Mars era."