NASA reentered the field of manned spaceflight as it launched the first Orion crew capsule into space today at 7:05 am EST from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy booster on a four and a half hour flight. The capsule, which was not carrying a crew, will carry out a two-orbit flight around the Earth, which will take it to an altitude of 3,600 mi (5,800 km) before returning for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off Baja California later this morning.

According to NASA, the beginning of the EFT-1 mission was delayed from its scheduled Thursday liftoff due to minor problems in conditioning the upper stage and reports of a boat wandering into the range over which the rocket would fly, then due to a sudden rise in local winds that exceeded safety parameters, and then a pair of fill and drain valves malfunctioned.

Five minutes and 33 seconds into the flight, the first stage of the Delta IV separated as planned with the second stage firing 16 seconds later. After the fairing that protected the capsule during its supersonic passage through the atmosphere fell away, the second critical point was passed at six minutes and 20 seconds later when the launch abort system, which towered over the capsule, fired its motors and was jettisoned away from the spacecraft.

The next stage of the flight will occur at two hours and nine seconds flight time when the second stage completes its burn, sending Orion into deep space for the first and last time as it passes through the Van Allen radiation belts before turning back to Earth.

Today's flight marks a hat trick for NASA. Not only does it mark the revival of the manned spaceflight program that went into hiatus with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, but it is also the first flight of a man-rated spacecraft out of near-Earth orbit since Apollo 17 in 1972, and the first flight of the world's largest ever heat shield.

EFT-1 boosting into orbit (Image: NASA)

As EFT-1 proceeds, Orion will orbit the Earth twice, traveling over 60,000 miles (96,600 km). The main objective of the flight is to build up enough speed to create the effects of a return from deep space. When Orion hits the Earth's atmosphere at four hours and 13 minutes into the flight, it will be moving at 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h), which will generate temperatures reaching 4,000⁰F (2,200⁰C).

Splashdown is expected about 23 minutes later, after which the capsule will be recovered by the USS Anchorage.

The video below outlines EFT-1's flight.

Source: NASA

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