The Orion spacecraft launched Friday morning from Cape Canaveral in Florida and finished its first test flight by falling gently into the Pacific Ocean, supported by a trio of parachutes.
The Orion blasted off at 4:05 a.m. PST, circled the globe twice, reached 3,600 miles above Earth, then placidly landed in the sea off Baja California. The flight, lasting about 4 1/2 hours, tested various systems of a spacecraft that scientists hope will one day carry humans to Mars.
Once Orion landed off the West Coast, the recovery process began.
"Recovery is still going on," NASA spokeswoman Brandi Dean told the Los Angeles Times at 1:25 p.m. PST, "but that was expected."
"It’s about a four-hour-long process, and they didn’t start right away after splashdown. We decided to wait to power down the spacecraft so that we could collect some additional information about how much heat seeped into the crew module."
Orion reached speeds of 20,000 mph, according to the space agency, and withstood reentry heat of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A camera aboard the spacecraft showed views of the Earth and flames as it reentered the atmosphere.
The Times accompanied crews on a dry run in September, preparing for Friday's recovery.
Here's how it works: The Navy sends Zodiac ships with divers, who attach a series of straps to the spacecraft, then the Anchorage attaches a winch line to reel the craft in. The Anchorage's wheel deck opens, filling with the water. Once the module is inside, the deck drains. On a manned mission, the astronauts would then step out.
Although extra time was taken with Friday's recovery, once Orion carries people, the operation will have to take place in less than two hours to ensure the comfort and safety of the astronauts.
NASA says it was looking for "real data" from this test that could be used for design improvements.
"We really pushed Orion as much as we could," said Mark Geyer, Orion program manager, in a news release.