NASA’s Orion Capsule Returns Safely in Flawless Pacific Splashdown

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from The Wall Street Journal,

Orion’s Historic Maiden Flight Accomplished All Major Milestones.

After a virtually flawless test flight that took NASA’s Orion capsule deeper into space than any other such vehicle in more than four decades, the unmanned spacecraft made a safe return with a historic pinpoint splashdown on Friday in the Pacific Ocean.

Capping two orbits of the earth that highlighted reliability of the capsule’s propulsion and flight-control systems, Orion landed right on target at about 11:30 a.m. EST, some 630 miles southwest of San Diego, according to NASA. Video images showed it bobbing gently in the ocean, in an upright position as it awaited arrival of a small armada of recovery vessels.

The return capped a day of many firsts, starting with a picture-perfect launch at sunrise precisely on time, then the capsule separating from its booster rocket, positioning itself for re-entry while traveling about 20,000 miles an hour and performing as intended to barrel through the atmosphere for a gentle touchdown.

Friday’s inaugural mission by Orion, which has been slated as America’s premier human-exploration vehicle for future decades, provides a much-needed boost for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at a time of heightened budget pressures and persistent congressional skepticism. Onboard cameras broadcast dramatic video of parts of the rocket framed by images of a blue, cloud-covered Earth.

The flight renewed public interest, at least temporarily, in the type of long-term goals for which NASA has struggled to generate excitement of late—from visiting asteroids to exploring Mars.

But agency officials cautioned that many technical challenges remain, while lawmakers are divided over how future missions will be funded or where they should go. Even as NASA and its supporters celebrated, Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House Science Committee, expressed concern about progress on the next-generation rocket being developed for Orion.

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