NASA's new Orion spaceship nailed its orbital debut flight, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean after a 4.5-hour journey that took it past the Van Allen radiation belts, a key test of its ability to operate in deep space.
After a day's delay to iron out a problem with the Delta 4 Heavy rocket that booted Orion into orbit, the spacecraft, which flew without a crew for its first flight, flawlessly ran through an automated series of commands and maneuvers to test 13 different technologies needed to one day put astronauts on Mars.
"All the systems functioned to perfection," NASA mission commentator Rob Navias said as Orion neared the end of its trial run.
The test flight began at 7:05 a.m. EST with liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and ended four hours, 23 minutes later with a parachute landing 630 southwest of San Diego.
In between, Orion successfully fired explosive charges to discard spent components, steered in orbit and survived high levels of radiation as it passed up and back through the Van Allen belts of radiation that surround the planet.
At peak altitude, Orion was 3,604 miles from Earth -- farther than any spacecraft designed for humans has been since the last Apollo moon mission in 1972.
The most challenging part of the flight was yet to come: a 20,000 mph dive back into Earth's atmosphere, nearly as fast as a spaceship returning from lunar orbit.
"The moment of truth for Orion," Navias said as the spaceship begin its plunge back to Earth.
Orion's half-ton, 16.5-diameter heat shield bore the brunt of temperatures that reached 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit -- twice as hot as molten lava.
Eventually, NASA plans to use the capsule to fly astronauts to and from Mars.
It will take a lot more than an Orion capsule to land crews on Mars, but today's debut test flight of its new human spaceship is a critical first step, says NASA.
Another Orion capsule, also unmanned, is due to fly in 2018 on a second test flight that includes the debut of NASA's new heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket.
Astronauts are expected to fly aboard the third Orion spaceship around 2021 on a mission that will make a high pass around the moon.
"This first step is a huge one," space station commander Butch Wilmore said during an inflight interview on NASA Television. "It's a thrilling prospect when you think about actually exploring the solar system. Who knows where it will take us."