KENNEDY SPACE CENTER/JOHNSON SPACE CENTER – NASA’s new Orion crew capsule flew its first test in space with clocklike precision Friday, using two unmanned orbits that took it deeper into space than any human spacecraft has gone since Apollo 17 before a bull’s-eye splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

On board was a load of recorded engineering data that will shape final design as the agency builds toward astronaut flights to lunar orbit and ultimately Mars. Navy divers recovered the 19,000-lb. capsule – once described as "Apollo on steroids" – using the flooded well deck of the USS Anchorage, after allowing its heat shield to cool down from the 4,000 F heat of re-entry.

Mission Control Center-Houston sent one of its first inflight commands to the next-generation crew vehicle during the 4-hr., 24-min. mission, extending post-touchdown powered operations for 45 min. beyond the automated shutoff once it was clear there was enough battery power left so data on residual cabin heating from the shield could be recorded.

That data, and the recorded input from some 1,200 sensors scattered throughout the flight-test article, will be downloaded and processed at West Coast facilities of Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin. Some of it may help engineers trim weight from the Avcoat heat shield and other structures as they prepare for the next Orion flight – a second unmanned mission that will take a more complete Orion around the Moon as early as 2017.

"We have every expectation this flight today will be the first of decades of flights of Orion and [the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS)]," said Administrator Charles Bolden, shortly before Orion lifted off on the first and only planned Orion Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) at 7:05 EST, after a one-day delay because of weather.

Testing began almost immediately after the vehicle’s three-barrel United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy dropped its two outermost core stages 3 min., 56 sec. into the flight and its center core stage shut down and separated 1 min., 33 sec. after that. With the single RL-10 engine firing in the upper stage to place the test article in its first orbit, pyrotechnic systems separated the load-bearing panels that protected a boilerplate version of the Orion service module under development by the European Space Agency.

Five seconds later a solid-fuel jettison motor supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne pulled the inert launch abort system off the vehicle, leaving the Orion capsule and its service module exposed to open space.

The upper stage engine roared to life again at 9 a.m., for 4 min., 40 sec. to achieve a 3,604.2-mi. peak altitude for the mission at 10:11 a.m. The last human-rated vehicle to achieve that altitude was Apollo 17, which launched on Dec. 7, 1972.

On the way to apogee the vehicle passed through the Van Allen radiation belts, which tested the avionics in a real space environment and provided data that will shape the shielding that protects future crews. The only effect noted initially was a video-processor reset, according to Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin’s Orion program manager.

However, flight controllers at Johnson Space Center – space-shuttle veterans all – had some 600 contingency commands at their disposal in case of more serious radiation effects or other problems, according to Larry Price, Hawes’ deputy.

The final testing came on re-entry, when the capsule’s heat shield – built of the same material that protected the Apollo command module but 50% larger diameter – encountered 4,000 F plasma as it re-entered. Engineers were waiting on the recovery vessels to inspect the shield – and the rest of the vehicle – as soon as the divers positioned it for recovery in the Anchorage’s well deck and pumped out the water.

The vehicle performed almost nominally in the atmosphere, jettisoning its back shield to expose its set of 11 drogue and main parachutes. The only visible bobbles came when one of the bags designed to turn the capsule upright failed to inflate, and another inflated only partially. But the Orion landed heat shield down, and stayed that way as the divers waited for it to cool.

The voyage back to Naval Base San Diego was expected to take two days. During the trip to port, the capsule will be repositioned in a special cradle to hasten offloading ashore.

Under the contract covering the $370 million mission, Lockheed Martin must analyze the data it generated and report back to NASA in 90 days, Hawes said. The results will be used in designing the unmanned first Exploration Mission (EM-1) vehicle already in early fabrication, and the EM-2 capsule that will take four astronauts around the Moon as early as 2021.

"We’re trying to build a system that’s manufacturable and fairly easy to reproduce," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations. "We want to keep our operating costs as reasonable as we can, so we don’t end up with each spacecraft being totally unique from a manufacturing standpoint."

Editor's note: The size of the heat shield has been clarified above.