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NASA has set a launch date for Artemis, its new rocket for flying humans to the moon

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

NASA made a big announcement today. It set a launch date for its big new rocket eventually meant to fly humans to the moon. This first test mission, Artemis 1, won't have anyone on board, but as Brendan Byrne of member station WMFE reports, it is an important and long-delayed launch.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: NASA says its 300-foot-tall SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft will blast off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The agency is targeting three possible launch opportunities starting on August 29, sending the deep space vehicle and three mannequins on a more-than-a-month-long mission around the moon and back. NASA's Jim Free.

JIM FREE: This is the first time that we're going to try and launch this vehicle. We're going to be careful. We're going to work hard to meet the attempts on those dates and do our best to position ourselves to have the confidence in those dates.

BYRNE: This launch is the beginning of a series of increasingly complex missions aimed at landing humans on the moon, the first since the Apollo program more than a half century ago. This mission, dubbed Artemis 1, will serve as a pathfinder, testing critical systems of the vehicle like life support and its heat shield. Artemis 2 will follow a similar trajectory but with astronauts on board, and Artemis 3 will carry people bound for the lunar surface. The agency says those next moonwalkers will include a woman and person of color. Here's space policy analyst Laura Forczyk.

LAURA FORCZYK: With all large programs that NASA runs, it has been long-delayed, and it has been way over budget and continues to be as we look forward to the first human lunar landing, which is currently scheduled for 2025 but is likely to slip.

BYRNE: An internal NASA audit last year found the agency will spend up to $25 billion through 2025 on the program, with each mission costing $4 billion per launch. And there's still much more work to do. NASA hopes to build a space station around the moon. The agency is working with private company SpaceX to build the first lunar lander. Parts for that moon station still haven't left Earth, as SpaceX continues critical flight testing of the lander. Still, says Forczyk, the announcement of the launch date for this first uncrewed Artemis mission is a big step.

FORCZYK: It finally feels real because not only do we have a rocket and a mission, we have a launch date, or at least a launch range.

BYRNE: The announcement came on the same day as another important national lunar milestone. It was 53 years ago that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the moon. For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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