NASA pressed the reset button this morning when it launched a test flight of the Orion spacecraft, ushering in a new era when the same craft will be designed for a mission to Mars. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. called today "Day One of the Mars era."
The Orion thundered toward 3,600 miles above Earth—that's the furthest a new human-built craft, launched from the Kennedy Space Center, has gone in four decades. The Orion was expected to orbit the Earth twice before splashing down into the Pacific Ocean later today. The test launch has a price tag of approximately $375 million.
Scientists are particularly interested in seeing how Orion's heat shield—the largest of its kind ever built—handles the re-entry, which should top 20,000 mph and 4,000 degrees.
The spacecraft is rigged with 1,200 sensors to gauge everything from heat to vibration to radiation. At 11 feet tall with a 16.5-foot base, Orion is bigger than the old-time Apollo capsules and, obviously, more advanced.