Orion's 'Picture Perfect' Splashdown Marks New Era in Spaceflight

NASA celebrates a successful test of its capsule designed to carry astronauts into deep space.

NASA's newest spacecraft successfully splashed down on Friday, opening a new era in deep-space exploration.

Unmanned for this test flight, the Orion space capsule successfully splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 11:29 a.m. EST, after a 20,000 mile per hour (32,000 kilometer per hour) plunge through the atmosphere.

"A picture-perfect splashdown," said NASA's Amber Philman, from a ship some 630 miles (1,014 kilometers) southwest of San Diego that is recovering the floating capsule.

"This is NASA, very slowly, on its way to deep space again," said space policy expert John Logsdon of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The next test of the space capsule comes in 2018, with another unmanned mission that will take the capsule into orbit around the moon.

Orion is intended to carry four astronauts aloft on 21-day missions that will fly higher than low Earth orbit, beyond the altitude of the International Space Station, which travels only 270 miles (430 kilometers) up. The capsule's reentry test was designed to show whether its new heat shields could withstand temperatures of 4,000°F (2,200°C) as it passed through the atmosphere on its high-speed return from deep space missions.

"This is the beginning of exploring beyond low Earth orbit," said NASA's Mark Geyer at a Kennedy Space Center briefing on Wednesday. (See "Future of Spaceflight.")

This reentry test was a trial run for the capsule, part of a decade-long, $9-billion development effort by NASA intended to eventually carry astronauts on deep-space missions. If funding comes through, Orion will help carry astronauts on an asteroid exploration mission around 2025, and perhaps someday to a deep space habitation vehicle for future years-long trips to Mars.

During its test flight, Orion circled the Earth once at space-station altitude and then proceeded to a higher elongated orbit that peaked some 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometers) above the Earth before plunging back to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA and Lockheed Martin technicians will assess the performance of Orion's heat shield once the capsule is recovered and returned to shore.

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