KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — NASA took one giant step closer to returning astronauts to the moon Tuesday after a successful test of Orion's emergency escape system. 

On a small but powerful rocket, an uncrewed Orion capsule was launched 6 miles above Florida's Space Coast at more than mach 1.

The test, which launched from Space Launch Complex 46 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, lasted about 3 minutes.

"It was (too cool)," Lockheed Martin engineer Blake Watters said. "My heart is still beating. I lost my breath." 

Watters has spent more than four years working on Orion's Launch Abort System, which is in charge of pulling the crew spacecraft away from the rocket in case there's a problem during an actual launch with astronauts on board.

"It's a wild ride, but they'll be safe from whatever bad news is happening to the rocket below them," Watters said.

The Launch Abort System helped reorient Orion and then separate from the rocket about 55 seconds into the launch.

Almost 900 sensors were on board Orion, with 12 data recorders released into the ocean as a backup. All 12 were recovered.

"It'll take a couple of months for the engineering team to digest all that data, put it under a microscope," said Mark Kirasich, a NASA Orion Program Manager.

As part of the simulated in-flight emergency, the Orion capsule, the Launch Abort System, and the rocket all plummeted the 31,000 feet into the ocean. In a real scenario, parachutes would have deployed to soften Orion's landing. Instead, the Orion mockup hit the ocean at 300 mph and broke apart.

"It's just all savings. If you're going to put parachutes on, you're going to spend money on the parachutes, you're going to spend money on the pyrotechnic devices that release them, and you're just going to have a lot of costs associated with that capsule," Watters said.

The parachutes have been tested previously.

Orion will still undergo more tests before being prepared for the next launch on NASA's new mega rocket set for next year on a mission around the moon. That will be the last uncrewed launch before astronauts are allowed on board.

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