After a smooth launch from Florida's Cape Canaveral, Orion splashed down at 11:29AM Eastern time, west of Baja California, in the Pacific Ocean. Orion's two loops around Earth got as high as 3,600 miles— about 15 times higher than the International Space Station and the highest any spacecraft made for people has gone in decades.
"It’s hard to have a better day than today," said Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion program manager, in a press conference following the craft's return.
Orion didn't have a crew onboard today, but it's built to take astronauts to destinations as ambitious as an asteroid — or even Mars. NASA has said Orion's test launch is part of a series of steps that end with a human mission to Mars. Today's mission is meant to mimic much of the stress that a craft meant to go to space will endure.
The trip back down through the atmosphere is a crucial test of Orion's heat shields, which protect astronauts onboard from being scorched. Re-entry to the atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour, or about 30 times the speed of sound, creates temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit — almost twice the melting point of steel. That's because the faster the craft goes through the atmosphere, the more energy is converted to heat. Should Orion ever be called on to return from Mars, it will enter the atmosphere at an estimated 33,500 miles per hour, cooking the heat shield at near 5,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
About five minutes after Orion began to plunge through the atmosphere, slowing the craft to a relatively sedate 300 miles per hour, 11 parachutes deployed to slow the craft further. When it splashed down, it was traveling an an estimated 20 miles per hour.
Right now, two US Navy ships are on their way to recover Orion from the Pacific Ocean. There is no word, as yet, whether a cookie from Cookie Monster — part of the symbolic cargo aboard Orion today — has been recovered uncrumbled.
By Elizabeth Lopatto