MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace Writer
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – NASA’s new Orion spacecraft made a “bull’s-eye” splashdown in the Pacific on Friday following a dramatic test flight that took it to a zenith of 3,604 miles and ushered in a new era of human exploration aiming for Mars.
The unmanned test flight ended 4½ hours after it began and achieved at least one record: flying farther and faster than any capsule built for humans since the Apollo moon program.
“There’s your new spacecraft, America!” Mission Control commentator Rob Navias said as the Orion capsule neared the water 270 miles off Mexico’s Baja peninsula.
Navias called the journey “the most perfect flight you could ever imagine.”
NASA is counting on future Orions to carry astronauts beyond Earth’s orbit, to asteroids and ultimately the grand prize: Mars.
The agency reported some positive results, saying onboard computers were unaffected by high radiation in space.
The capsule reached a peak altitude more than 14 times farther from Earth than the International Space Station. No spacecraft designed for astronauts had gone so far since Apollo 17 – NASA’s final moon shot – 42 years ago.
NASA needed to send Orion that high in order to set the crew module up for a 20,000-mph, 4,000-degree entry. That was considered the most critical part of the entire flight – testing the largest-of-its-kind heat shield for survival before humans climb aboard.
In 11 minutes, Orion slowed from 20,000 miles per hour to 20 mph at splashdown, its final descent aided by eight parachutes deployed in sequence. A crew on board 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 to space, and stunning images were relayed back home. Its return was recorded by an unmanned drone flying over the recovery zone, providing more spectacular views. Helicopters then relayed images of the crew module bobbing in the water. Three of the five air bags deployed properly, enough to keep the capsule floating upright.
The U.S. Navy was there to recover the spacecraft 630 miles southwest of San Diego, where it will be brought to land. All the parachutes did their job, but only two of the eight were recovered.
Orion’s debut was designed to be brief – just two orbits of Earth.
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.”
Everything went NASA’s way Friday as the Delta IV rocket carried Orion into orbit.
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.”
From the International Space Station; six astronauts watched the events unfold via a live TV feed.
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.
The spacecraft was 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.
Friday’s Orion – serial number 001 – lacked seats, cockpit displays and life-support equipment, but brought along bundles of toys and memorabilia: bits of moon dust; the crew patch worn by Sally Ride, America’s first spacewoman; a Capt. James Kirk doll owned by “Star Trek” actor William Shatner.
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 this time for the Delta IV, 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, although it 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.”
Associated Press reporter Alex Sanz contributed to this report from Cape Canaveral.