Nasa successfully launched its new Orion spacecraft on a mission that the US space agency hopes will foreshadow the first human expedition to Mars.
At 7.05am ET (12.05pm GMT) on Friday a dense bloom of fire and smoke shrouded the launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, as the Orion capsule rose into clear skies on the Delta IV heavy rocket.
Four hours and 24 minutes later, after orbiting the Earth twice and flying further and faster than any spacecraft designed for humans since the Apollo moon program, Orion splashed back to Earth in the Pacific.
“There’s your new spacecraft, America,” mission control commentator Rob Navias said as the Orion capsule neared the water. Navies called the journey “the most perfect flight you could ever imagine”.
Nasa had to postpone an initial launch on Thursday after a boat entered the launch area, strong winds forced automatic aborts, and two valves failed to close properly.
Friday’s launch went smoothly, and cameras mounted on the rocket beamed back stunning pictures of the Earth as Orion blasted into the sky. Orion’s mission took it about 3,600 miles (5,800km) above the Earth’s surface, and could have huge implications, despite its brief duration. This time, the rocket was unnamed, but the craft is designed eventually to carry humans to Mars.
As its second orbit came closer to the planet, the Orion capsule separated and re-entered the atmosphere, eventually splashing down into the Pacific off the coast of southern California, from where it was being recovered.
The mission tested how Orion fares in the extreme conditions of space travel. Nasa has designed the capsule to take up to six astronauts into deep space, and its 16ft-wide heat shield and sophisticated service module are among the features whose durability will be inspected upon return.
The capsule not only survived launch and orbit, but temperatures of about 2,200C (4,000F) as it returned through Earth’s atmosphere. Nasa also tested an emergency abort function developed to save astronauts in the event of a malfunction during launch.
Nasa has planned a second unmanned flight for 2018, and a manned mission to travel around the moon for the 2020s. Eventually, the agency hopes to send astronauts on an Orion mission through deep space to an asteroid and Mars in the 2030s.
Budget issues and uncertainty have plagued Nasa’s plans for the future, although recent presidents have consistently urged the agency to aim high. In 2010 Barack Obama, who cancelled a $10bn programme to return Americans to the moon, said he supported a mission of greater ambition: “By the mid 2030s I believe we can send humans to orbit, Mars and return them safely to Earth.”