(CNN) -- The new type of spacecraft that NASA hopes will take astronauts to Mars has passed its first test above Earth.
NASA's Orion capsule -- part of America's bid to take crews beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo missions -- splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on Thursday morning after a nearly 4½-hour, two-orbit, uncrewed test flight.
The cone-shaped craft, slowed by a series of parachutes, settled onto the water at 8:29 a.m. PT about 600 miles southwest of San Diego.
"America has driven a golden spike as it crosses a bridge into the future," a NASA announcer said as the capsule bobbed on the ocean's surface during the agency's TV broadcast of the event.
The flight took Orion farther from Earth than any craft designed for human flight has been since the Apollo 17 mission to the moon in 1972 -- a confidence builder for a program that NASA hopes will take its first human crew into space in 2021.
Orion -- a crew module designed to carry to six astronauts -- lifted off into a blue Florida sky at 7:05 a.m. ET atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. The assembly shed its boosters before the rocket's second stage lifted Orion into low-Earth orbit in minutes.
"The launch itself (was) 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."
Then, two hours later, a milestone: The second stage lifted Orion higher for its second orbit, about 3,600 miles above Earth, or 15 times higher than the International Space Station.
After the splashdown, crews from two Navy recovery ships were working to collect the reusable craft.
It was a crucial test for the capsule, whose flight and re-entry abilities NASA wants to prove before it carries astronauts.
A new beginning
NASA hopes Orion will usher in a new era: Eventual human exploration of space beyond the moon.
While private space companies like SpaceX are expected to take over the space shuttles' old job of ferrying astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit, NASA wants Orion capsules to take humans farther out.
"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.
The Orion crew module, which looks like a throwback to the Apollo era but it is roomier, is designed to go far beyond the moon.
One of Orion's tasks, once fully functional, might be to send astronauts to an asteroid -- perhaps one that NASA would first robotically redirect to orbit around the moon. NASA says it hopes that Orion, pushed by a more powerful rocket system under development, will send astronauts to an asteroid in the 2020s.
NASA hopes Orion later will send astronauts to Mars' moons, and eventually -- maybe in the 2030s -- to Mars itself.
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.
Though Orion's first flight didn't have people on it, it didn't go up empty. It carried the names of more than a million people packed on a dime-sized microchip.
"Sesame Street" sent up some mementos to inspire students about spaceflight, including Cookie Monster's cookie and Ernie's rubber ducky.
Also aboard: 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 made the trip, and lockers were filled with flags, coins, patches, poetry and music.
Friday's launch came a day after NASA scrubbed its first attempt because of a failure of some valves in the boosters to close. Those valves, which allow fuel to flow into the boosters before launch, are supposed to close just before liftoff.
By Jason Hanna and Amanda Barnett