The Orion spacecraft arrived at Naval Base San Diego Monday night aboard the USS Anchorage, which recovered the capsule after its maiden flight Friday.

Media crowded the pier to watch as the 17-foot-diameter craft was unloaded from the well deck of the Anchorage.

Jeremy Graeber, NASA recovery director for the mission, said, “There were no surprises from a recovery perspective.”

“To have it go off the way we all planned was an amazing accomplishment,” he said. But “the heat shield look was a bit different that we thought it would be.”

Looking ahead, the NASA director said, “We’ve got so many things set up going to deep space. We’ve just proven a big piece of that puzzle. It sets us off on a great footing going forward.

“We’ve got many things coming up in the next few years, and having this success under our belts just shows that this team really knows how to get this done, and we’re ready to take up to the challenges.”

The year 2021 is when the first manned mission is scheduled, he said. “We are aiming and expecting to have all of our capabilities in place then.”

Capt. Michael McKenna, USS Anchorage commanding officer, said the Navy was thrilled to be part of the NASA effort.

“We developed the technology, really by ourselves, and procedures that will probably be used for the foreseeable future for manned space flight.”

“The USS Anchorage got the opportunity to be party to that. I couldn’t be more proud of everyone,” he said. The U.S. Navy, NASA and Lockheed Martin were partners in the effort.

“We were four to five miles away (from the splashdown), and it was just fantastic,” the captain said. “Everyone was cheering.”

McKenna said the crew heard sonic booms as the capsule descended.

About 200 members of his crew were actively involved in the eight-hour operation to secure the spacecraft on the ship, he said.Training for the mission has been underway for a year.

The biggest challenge, McKenna said, was maintaining the security of his crew while at the same time avoiding damage to the capsule.

McKenna added, “I really hope that the American people get behind it (space program), and we get to go into deep space.”

Astronaut Sunita Williams said, “This test flight will hopefully help us to get the (NASA) program kickstarted very well. It allows people to dream and imagine. It’s getting kids motivated like, wow, there are possibilities.

“I think this is amazing for everyone. People realize that we’re continuing. NASA is exploring. NASA is on the cutting edge and is taking advantage of all of the technologies that have been developed in the last 20 years.”

While the space station may continue to be operational for another decade, the astronaut said, “We want something that the kids in elementary school say, ‘We might be able to go to Mars in my lifetime. I could be that astronaut.’ ”

“I think it’s something that speaks to kids all around the world,” she added, “and I love being a part of it.”

Asked if she was on a roster for a future manned mission, Williams said, “That hasn’t been squared away yet, but I’ll be volunteering.”

Orion will remain at Naval Base San Diego for a few days while spacecraft data are reviewed. Then it will be placed on a flatbed truck and driven back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

NASA plans to use amphibious transport dock ships like the Anchorage to recover future Orion flights. This class of Navy ships has well decks into which an Orion can be floated, advanced medical facilities, helicopters, three dimensional air-search radar and small boats.

“Orion is meant to be reused, which is why we tailored this recovery to accommodate keeping the capsule safe,” said Navy Diver 1st Class Matthew Demyers.

The Orion blasted off from Florida on Friday aboard a giant Delta 4 Heavy rocket, the largest currently operating.  After two orbits, the craft accelerated to 20,000 miles per hour for re-entry through the atmosphere simulating a return from beyond the Earth.

The spacecraft is designed to carry a crew of four astronauts on long-duration missions to an asteroid, the Moon or Mars. The first crewed flight is expected later in the decade aboard NASA’s new Space Launch System now under development.