Dawn of Orion: NASA launch opens new era in space

Published 9:33 am Friday, December 5, 2014

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s new Orion spacecraft zoomed toward a high point of 3,600 miles on an orbital test flight Friday, ushering in a new era of exploration that could one day put people on Mars.

The unmanned journey began with a sunrise liftoff witnessed by thousands of NASA guests. Two hours later, Orion zoomed toward the highest altitude traveled by a spacecraft built for humans since the Apollo moon program four decades ago.

NASA was thrilled with Orion’s perfect performance as the most important part of the mission loomed: setting the spacecraft up for a scorchingly high-speed re-entry over the Pacific.

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Orion’s debut was designed to be brief — just 4½ hours from launch to splashdown, with two orbits of Earth. But for the first time in 42 years, NASA was sending a human-intended spacecraft farther than a couple hundred miles from Earth. The previous time was the Apollo 17 moon shot.