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Orion Lifts Off

America is back in the manned space flight business, or at least, we're getting closer. The Orion rocket launched from the Kennedy Space Center this morning.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — An unmanned NASA exploration capsule blasted off on its first ride to space Friday.

Onlookers cheered as a 24-story Delta IV Heavy rocket rumbled from slowly from its Cape Canaveral Air Force Station pad with NASA's first Orion capsule at 7:05 a.m.

The launch marked the start of a planned four-and-a-half hour test flight intended to take Orion on two laps around the planet, flying 3,600 miles up to set up a high-speed re-entry through the atmosphere and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

For some perspective, the space shuttle and the Hubble Space Telescope orbit at about 350 miles above the earth's surface. Orion went a whole lot higher than that. It's a powerful beast. Orion's mission today marks the first flight of a vehicle designed to carry humans, to go beyond low earth orbit since the Apollo moon missions. The moon is about 250,000 miles from earth. Orion will eventually traverse millions of miles.

NASA described the launch as "perfect." Orion is the next generation of America's space flight platforms. It will eventually take humans out to an asteroid, and to Mars. Those missions remain a decade or more away, but Orion's first manned missions are set for around 2018.

NASA rocketry and research has transformed technology since the agency's beginnings. A full list of all of the innovations that have their roots in NASA would take days to compile. Fortunately, NASA has been keeping track at its spinoff tech site.

What will we learn by putting humans on an asteroid and on Mars? We don't know yet, and that's the point of going.