(AP) -- NASA engineers catapulted the new Orion crew capsule about a mile into the air Thursday morning as hundreds of people gathered to watch.
The launch at White Sands Missile Range in the barren southern New Mexico desert left a stream of white smoke as the unmanned capsule arched through the sky, deployed a parachute and landed about a mile north of the launch site.
The tests are aimed at Orion's launch-abort system, which will whisk astronauts and the capsule to safety in case of a problem on the launch pad, such as a fire, or during the climb to orbit.
Jeff Sheehy, a NASA engineer working on the capsule, said the test appeared to be successful.
The Orion capsule was originally designed to take astronauts back to the moon. But President Barack Obama in February killed NASA's $100 billion plans to return to the moon, redirecting the money for new rocket technology research.
One proposal is to send the capsule to the International Space Station to be used as an escape vehicle, so U.S. astronauts wouldn't have to rely on the Russian Soyuz for an emergency flight home.
"It will transition to some useful purpose," Sheehy said. "What that is remains to be seen."
Explore further: NASA's MMS observatories stacked for testing