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First test flight of NASA's Orion spacecraft launches successfully

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It will land four hours later, after orbiting the Earth twice

The very first test flight of NASA's Orion space capsule launched successfully today from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The craft will take two spins around the Earth before its planned splashdown four hours later, somewhere off the coast of Baja California. During those four hours, the Orion test flight will evaluate the systems crucial for astronaut safety.

Today, after saying goodbye to Florida, Orion will speed to some 3,600 miles above the Earth's surface on its second orbit around the planet, 15 times higher than the ISS. And it will re-enter the atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour, about the speed of a craft returning from the moon, and its heat shields will be tested by temperatures of approximately 4000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The launch was scrubbed yesterday after a series of delays, but today its flight went off without a hitch. While Orion is un-crewed this morning — though it will be carrying a cookie from Sesame Street's Cookie Monster — it's meant to carry people to space. This morning, it launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket —  a main rocket with two boosters. But it will eventually go atop an even more powerful rocket, the Space Launch System; the rocket and capsule program, taken together, are expected to cost $19 billion to $22 billion. This test is, ultimately, a step toward Mars.

Orion test launch

orion looks a lot like ApolloOrion looks a lot like an updated Apollo craft, right down to the flattened bottom meant to slow the capsule as it hits the atmosphere. It's a little bigger, and the design contains updates from the 40 years since the end of the Apollo era. In other words: Orion is the most ambitious spacecraft the US has ever designed to carry people.

That ambition means Orion is meant to carry people farther than any mission since the end of Apollo; the Space Shuttle, which ferried astronauts to the Hubble Space Telescope or the International Space Station for 30 years until its retirement in 2011, wasn't designed to fly nearly as high. If Orion lives up to its expectations, it could be used to send people to asteroids, the moon, and — with a little luck — Mars. For more design details, this article in Air & Space is excellent reading.