NASA’s new Orion space capsule was lauched into space Friday morning on a pillar of flame, ushering in what the agency hopes will be a new era of space exploration.

Sitting aboard a Delta IV rocket, the Orion capsule lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:05 a.m. The launching had been delayed for a day after winds and a problem with the rocket’s fuel system forced a cancellation on Thursday.

Only test equipment and some untraditional passengers — including Ernie’s rubber ducky from “Sesame Street” — are aboard the Orion capsule for this short flight, which is intended to test launching and re-entry systems. Orion will circle the earth for two orbits, the second one carrying it to an altitude of 3,600 miles so it can achieve a high re-entry speed. The capsule is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles west of Baja California shortly before 11:30 a.m.

The $375 million flight marks the beginning of in-space testing for the capsule. Because of limited budgets at NASA, the next test flight is not expected until 2018, and Orion will not carry astronauts until 2021 at the earliest. But NASA hopes that some day the capsule will be able to take people back to the moon or to Mars.

After the delays and postponement on Thursday, flight controllers had been concerned that the launching might have to be postponed again because of high winds early Friday. But the winds stayed below the limit of about 24 miles an hour, and the Delta IV rocket, with three large boosters fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, ignited right on time and accelerated to supersonic speeds within 85 seconds.

The spacecraft reached a “picture perfect” orbit some 15 minutes later, NASA said. A little more than an hour later, the rocket’s second stage fired for a second time to send Orion into its higher second orbit.

By Henry FOUNTAIN with a video from PBS

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