Orion’s Historic Flight Ushers In New Era Of Human Space Exploration

NASA’s next generation spacecraft designed to take humans to Mars successfully completed its first flight test.

NASA’s new Orion crew vehicle, a spacecraft designed to send humans farther into space than ever before, successfully completed its first flight test, also known as Exploration Flight Test 1, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean Friday ushering in a new era of human space exploration.

Orion launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket at 7:05 a.m. EST on Dec. 5 from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. “Liftoff at dawn. The dawn of Orion and a new era of American space exploration,” NASA’s launch commentator Mike Curie proclaimed as the rocket blasted off on its first test flight.

During Orion’s 4.5 hour test flight, the spacecraft performed two orbits of the planet and reached a peak altitude of approximately 3,600 miles above Earth. Instead of carrying astronauts aboard, the spacecraft was equipped with more than 1,200 sensors measuring every aspect of the flight in detail.

NASA officials said the spacecraft seemed to perform well throughout the flight test. During the spaceflight Orion had to survive traveling through the Van Allen belts, a region of intense radiation surrounding Earth, as well as having to withstand temperatures as high as 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit when reentering Earth’s atmosphere at approximately 20,000 mph. [WATCH: Orion’s First Test Flight Will Be A ‘Trail By Fire’]

Using a system of parachutes to decelerate the spacecraft like the Apollo missions did, Orion splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on schedule at 11:29 a.m. EST on Dec. 5, in what NASA is calling a “bullseye” landing.

In the future, Orion will be launched using the Space Launch System, NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket that was given the green light to begin development earlier this year. Orion’s next uncrewed flight test, known as Exploration Mission 1, will launch aboard a 70 metric-ton SLS on a retrograde orbit around the moon before the end of 2018. It will follow a circumlunar trajectory similar to the flight path of the Apollo 8 mission.

[Read more: NASA’s New Heavy Lift Rocket For Deep Space Exploration Will Be Ready For Launch By 2018]

Today’s flight test was the first time since the Apollo program that a human-rated spacecraft traveled beyond low-Earth orbit. Orion represents the next giant leap in human space exploration, as the first spacecraft designed with a crewed mission to Mars in mind.