CAPE CANAVERAL, FL (NBC News) - NASA's Orion deep-space capsule hit a historic peak during its first robotic test flight on Friday, and then splashed down into the Pacific Ocean for a picture-perfect ending.

On the way down, the cone-shaped spacecraft went through a "trial by fire" during which the heat of atmospheric re-entry rose as high as 4,000 degrees, or twice the heat of molten lava.

"America has driven a golden spike as it crosses a bridge into the future," NASA spokesman Rob Navias declared as Orion hit the water, 275 miles west of Baja California, at 11:29 a.m. ET. Recovery ships converged to bring the capsule back to shore.

The finale came less than four and a half hours after Orion's launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. On Thursday, gusty winds and a balky fuel valve kept the United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket grounded, but nothing went wrong on Friday.

"Liftoff at dawn! The dawn of Orion, for a new era of American space exploration!" launch commentator Mike Curie said, as the rocket blasted through the clouds just after sunrise at 7:05am.

NASA and its commercial partners are designing Orion to take astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid in the 2020s, and to Mars and its moons in the 2030s. For that reason, NASA portrayed Friday's test flight as a first step toward deep-space exploration. The mission is known as Exploration Flight Test 1, or EFT-1.

"I would describe it as the beginning of the Mars era," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said on NASA TV.

Orion's flight marked the first time since the Apollo 17 moon mission in 1972 that a vehicle designed to carry humans went beyond low Earth orbit.

Far-out trip

Mission managers said the rocket and capsule performed perfectly during the initial phases of the test. "It was just a blast to see how well the rocket did," said Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion program manager.

After Orion made its first circuit around the planet, the rocket's upper stage kicked it into a second, highly eccentric orbit that looped 3,604.2 miles from Earth. That's 15 times farther away than the International Space Station.

The space station crew huddled around monitors to watch Orion's progress. "Awesome!!!" NASA astronaut Terry Virts tweeted from the orbital outpost.

After hitting the top of its orbit at 10:11 a.m. ET, Orion screamed back toward Earth at about 20,000 mph — which is 80 percent of the velocity that a spacecraft returning from the moon would encounter. NASA's Navias said Orion was projected to experience peak acceleration of 8.26 G's — far more than the 3 G's that astronauts felt during the space shuttle era.

This particular Orion is missing a lot of the components that would be needed for a crewed flight, and it's not carrying humans. Instead, it's outfitted with more than 1,200 sensors to monitor how its communication and control systems dealt with heightened radiation levels, how its heat shield handled the re-entry temperatures, and how its parachutes slowed the craft down for splashdown.

Two Navy recovery ships — plus a complement of smaller boats, helicopters and a camera-equipped drone — began efforts to pick up the capsule and bring it in to Naval Base San Diego. From there, the spacecraft is to be trucked cross-country, back to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Although there are no people aboard Orion, NASA packed a few personages in the payload — including Sesame Street characters and a Captain Kirk action figure. Other mementos flown on the capsule include a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil, an oxygen hose from an Apollo spacesuit and a wide variety of recordings, photos, patches, pins and poems.

Data collected during and after the flight will be analyzed to help the Orion team prepare for the next uncrewed test flight in 2018. A more advanced version of Orion is to be launched by NASA's giant Space Launch System rocket, or SLS, which is currently under development. During the 2018 flight, known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, Orion would fly around the moon and back.

The ride ahead

The first crewed Orion flight is scheduled for 2021, and that could involve sending astronauts around the moon for the first time since Apollo. Farther-out expeditions, including the trip to an asteroid and the buildup to Mars missions, would follow every year or so.

This week's test was managed by Orion's prime contractor on NASA's behalf, Lockheed Martin, at a cost of $370 million. Geyer said developing the Orion spacecraft costs NASA about $1 billion per year, and NASA estimates that work on the SLS rocket will cost roughly $7 billion between now and its 2018 test flight.

NASA has not yet settled on the designs for the landers and space habitats that would be required for a Mars mission, but officials say they expect those components will be ready to go by the 2030s.

Critics have targeted the multibillion-dollar price tag for Orion and SLS, as well as the long development schedule and the anticipated flight schedule. "Committing to Orion is committing to an Apollo-like replay, just as with SLS: Few people, infrequent and high cost," space industry consultant Charles Lurio told NBC News in an email.

At the same time that NASA is funding the development of Orion and SLS, it's also supporting the commercial development of less expensive "space taxis" that would carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, starting in 2017 or so. In September, the agency set aside $6.8 billion to help SpaceX and Boeing build such space taxis.

SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, has said his company's Dragon capsule could eventually be used for missions to Mars as well as for shorter flights.