CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s new Orion spacecraft hit its intended high point of 3,600 miles above Earth on its orbital test flight Friday, the farthest a spacecraft built for humans has traveled in four decades.

Now its dramatic trip back to the planet awaits to conclude a mission ushering in a new era of exploration that could one day put people on Mars.

The unmanned capsule reached peak altitude of 3,604 miles three hours after the sunrise liftoff. No spacecraft designed for humans had reached so far since Apollo 17 — NASA’s final moon shot — 42 years ago.

As Orion zoomed flawlessly toward that high point on its second lap around Earth, the planet could be seen shrinking in the televised view out the capsule window.

NASA needed to send Orion that high in order to set the crew module up for a 20,000-mph, 4,000-degree entry over the Pacific. This part of the operation was perhaps 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 4½ 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!”.. see more

source: huffingtonpost