NASA reached a major milestone Friday as the Orion spacecraft completed its first voyage to space, traveling farther than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has been in more than 40 years.

Bottom line: NASA's back in the spaceflight game for the first time since the space shuttle program ended three years ago.

NASA's Orion spacecraft descends above the Pacific Ocean on Friday after its initial test flight. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Charles White/U.S. Navy)

The "flight test of Orion is a huge step for NASA and a really critical part of our work to pioneer deep space on our journey to Mars," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said.

Orion blazed into the sky at 7:05 a.m. EST Friday, lifting off from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. The Orion crew module splashed down about 4½ hours later in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles southwest of San Diego.

During the unmanned test, Orion traveled twice through the Van Allen belt and reached an altitude of 3,600 miles above Earth. Orion hit speeds of 20,000 miles per hour, experienced high periods of radiation and weathered temperatures approaching 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit entering the Earth's atmosphere. The flight tested Orion's heat shield, avionics, parachutes, computers and key spacecraft separation events.

On future missions, Orion will launch on NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket, which is being developed at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

"We really pushed Orion as much as we could to give us real data that we can use to improve Orion's design going forward," said Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft is pulled into the well deck of the U.S. Navy’s U.S.S. Anchorage after its splashdown Friday in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo: NASA)

A team of NASA, U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin personnel aboard the U.S.S. Anchorage recovered Orion late Friday night and are returning it to U.S. Naval Base San Diego in California by Monday, NASA officials said.

Orion will then be delivered to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it will be processed. The crew module will be refurbished for use in Ascent Abort-2 in 2018, a test of Orion's launch abort system.

Lockheed Martin, NASA's prime Orion contractor, began manufacturing the Orion module in 2011 and delivered it in July 2012 to Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout Facility at Kennedy. More than 1,000 companies across the U.S. manufactured or contributed elements to Orion.