WATCH: Orion spacecraft lifts off from Cape Canaveral

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s new Orion spacecraft lifted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on schedule Friday morning, an uncrewed test flight that begins what the space agency hopes is a new era of manned space exploration.

The capsule and Delta IV Heavy rocket cleared the service tower and minutes later shed the boosters without any apparent hitches.

Eight minutes into the flight, Delta IV’s upper stage was carrying Orion to its preliminary orbit, traveling around 14,000 mph.

“The launch itself is just a blast,” NASA Orion program manager Mark Geyer quipped on NASA TV shortly after liftoff, “as you see how well the rocket did. It was exciting to see.”

Orion will orbit Earth twice — first in low orbit, and then in much higher orbit — 3,600 miles above the planet, or 15 times higher than the International Space Station.

Orion will be with the Delta IV’s upper stage for the first orbit. Then — about two hours into the flight — the rocket will ignite again and push Orion into the higher orbit before separating.

Four and a half hours after launch, Orion is expected to splash down in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles off the coast of Baja California. Two U.S. Navy ships, the amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage and the Military Sealift Command rescue and salvage ship USNS Salvor, will help NASA recover the capsule.

The launch comes a day after NASA scrubbed its first attempt. Thursday morning’s launch was postponed because of a failure of some fuel valves to close in the booster rockets.

Orion is expected to send back some amazing pictures of Earth, NASA said. If the weather cooperates, NASA said a drone will provide a live video feed of the splashdown.

A new beginning

NASA hopes Orion will usher in a new era: Eventual human exploration of asteroids and Mars.

“We haven’t had this feeling in a while, since the end of the shuttle program,” Mike Sarafin, Orion flight director at Johnson Space Center, said in a preflight briefing on Wednesday.

Orion looks like a throwback to the Apollo era, but it is roomier and designed to go far beyond the moon.

When it becomes fully operational, Orion’s crew module will be able to carry four people on a 21-day mission into deep space or six astronauts for shorter missions. By comparison, the Apollo crew modules held three astronauts and were in space for six to 12 days. Orion’s crew module is 16.5 feet in diameter and Apollo was 12.8 feet in diameter, NASA said.

Orion is expected to take up its first crew in 2021.

Though Orion’s first flight won’t have people on it, it won’t go up empty. It will carry the names of more than a million people packed on a dime-sized microchip.

“Sesame Street” is sending up some mementos to inspire students about spaceflight, including Cookie Monster’s cookie and Ernie’s rubber ducky.

Also going up: an oxygen hose from an Apollo 11 lunar spacesuit and a small sample of lunar soil. A Tyrannosaurus rex fossil from the Denver Science Museum will be on board and lockers will be filled with flags, coins, patches, poetry and music.

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