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The Artemis Moon mission moves NASA into new era of space exploration

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

NASA's newest moon rocket has left the building. The space launch system arrived at a launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida this morning but is not leaving the planet just yet. Here's Brendan Byrne from our member station WMFE in Orlando.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: The space launch system, or SLS, is more than 300 feet tall and is the first moon rocket to roll out to Kennedy Space Center's launch complex since the Apollo program more than half a century ago. It takes around 11 hours to transport the 5-million-pound rocket from NASA's vehicle assembly building to its launch pad.

RANDY BRESNIK: It's a huge moment.

BYRNE: Standing outside the assembly building, NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik watches as the team moves the massive rocket to its launch pad some four miles away and the agency into a new chapter of exploration.

BRESNIK: Finally, it's-really-happening kind of moment is so exciting.

BYRNE: The Artemis mission's aim - to return NASA astronauts to the moon in the 2020s. The plan is to use the SLS rocket to launch the Orion spacecraft, which will meet up with a small space station orbiting the moon. The first astronauts heading to the surface will use a spacecraft designed to develop by Elon Musk's SpaceX to get astronauts to the surface. The first mission will take no crew with it, instead serving as a critical test of the deep space vehicle. And before it can leave the planet, the Artemis 1 rocket must first go through what's called the wet dress rehearsal, says NASA's Carlos Garcia-Galan.

CARLOS GARCIA-GALAN: We treat it like a real countdown. We're just stopping short of actually launching the thing.

BYRNE: That practice run will happen early next month, giving the audience launch team a chance to work out any kinks, says Lockheed Martin's Chelsea Partridge.

CHELSEA PARTRIDGE: If anything comes up, it gives us a chance to fix that, update whatever needs to be done and then actually get ready to launch for real.

BYRNE: And if all goes well at the pad, the rocket will make its way back to the assembly building one last time before repeating the four-mile journey and heading to the moon as early as June.

For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne at the Kennedy Space Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GREG FOAT GROUP'S "THE DANCERS WALTZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.