After yesterday's launch was canceled amid gusts of wind and technical problems, Orion successfully blasted off at 7:05am today as thousands of people watched in Cape Canaveral. "This is Day 1 of the Mars era," said NASA administrator Charles Bolden; the space agency plans for the space capsule to carry astronauts to the Red Planet in about two decades. But for now, Orion is off on a 4.5-hour unmanned mission so it can be tested; six minutes post-launch, everything was "functioning perfectly," a NASA announcer said, as the DELTA IV Heavy rocket jettisoned its three boosters and saw its second stage ignite.
Orion will orbit Earth twice at a peak altitude of 3,600 miles, farther than any spacecraft built for people since Apollo 17 in December 1972, the AP reports. NASA will study how its controls and computers function, how its electronics do in deep-space radiation, how its heat shields handle 4,000-degree re-entry temperatures, and whether the landing will be safe for humans, the Orlando Sentinel reports. Orion will eventually splash down in the ocean, around 600 miles west of Mexico's Baja California, and be recovered by the Navy before being returned to Kennedy Space Center. The next big test won't come until 2018. (Read more NASA stories.)