The American space agency Nasa has launched the giant New Moon rocket to prepare it for a maiden flight.
Known as the Space Launch System (SLS), the vehicle was brought to Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida ahead of its expected liftoff on August 29.
The first excursion is an uncrewed test, but future missions will send astronauts back to the lunar surface for the first time in more than 50 years.
The nearly 100-meter (328-foot) tall SLS drove a huge tractor onto the pad.
It began moving from its assembly building in Kennedy shortly before 22:00 local time on Tuesday, and had completed the 6.7 kilometer (4.2 mile) journey shortly after sunrise on Wednesday morning.
This is a key moment for NASA, which in December will celebrate the half-century anniversary of Apollo 17, the last human landing on the Moon.
The agency has vowed to return with its new Artemis program, using technology befitting the modern era (Artemis was the twin sister of the Greek god Apollo and goddess of the Moon).
NASA sees returning to the Moon as a way to prepare to go to Mars with astronauts sometime in the 2030s or soon after.
The SLS will have 15% more thrust from the pad than Apollo’s Saturn V rockets. This extra power, combined with further improvements, will allow the vehicle not only to send astronauts far beyond Earth, but, in addition, so much equipment and cargo that these crews could stay away for extended periods.
The crew capsule, too, is a step up in capability. Called the Orion, it is much more spacious, being a meter wider, at 5 meters (16.5 feet), than the historic command units of the 1960s and 1970s.
“To all of us who look up at the Moon, dreaming of the day when humanity returns to the lunar surface – guys, we’re here! We’re coming back. And that journey, our journey, begins with Artemis 1,” said Nasa Administrator Bill Nelson.
“The first crewed launch, Artemis 2, is two years from now in 2024. We hope the first landing, Artemis 3, will be in 2025,” he told BBC News.
Nasa has promised that this third mission will witness the first woman to set her boots on the surface of the Moon.
Once the SLS reaches the launch pad, engineers will have more than a week and a half to prepare the vehicle for flight.
Three possible launch opportunities exist at the end of the month, starting on Monday, August 29.
If technical problems or bad weather prevent the rocket from lifting off from Earth on that date, a further attempt may be made on Friday 2 September and, failing that, on Monday 5 September.
The purpose of the mission is to send Orion around the backside of the Moon before bringing it home for a crash in the Pacific Ocean off California.
A main goal of the test battle is to test that the heat shield in the capsule can survive the heat of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
A key partner in the upcoming mission is Europe.
It provides the propulsion unit on the back of Orion, pushing it into space.
“More than 10 countries in Europe are working on this contribution from the European Space Agency (ESA). It’s a hugely important moment for us,” explained Siân Cleaver from aerospace manufacturer Airbus.
“The European Service Module is not just a payload, it’s not just a piece of equipment – it’s a really critical component because Orion can’t get to the Moon without us.”
Europe hopes that its contribution to this and future SLS/Orion missions will eventually see a European national part of a lunar surface crew at some point.
For now, he’ll have to cheer on the British cartoon character Shaun the Sheep. A puppet used in the stop-motion TV movies has been placed in the Orion capsule, with an Esa badge and the Union flag on its uniforms.
While Nasa develops the SLS, American rocket entrepreneur Elon Musk is preparing an even bigger vehicle at his R&D facility in Texas.
It’s named Starship’s giant rocket and will play a role in future Artemis missions, connecting with Orion to land astronauts on the Moon’s surface.
Like the SLS, Starship has yet to have a maiden flight. Unlike the SLS, the Starship is designed to be fully reusable and should therefore be much cheaper to run.
A recent assessment by the Office of the Inspector General, which oversees Nasa’s programs, found that the first four SLS missions would each cost more than $4 billion to run — an amount of money described as “unsustainable.”
The agency said changes made to the way it contracts with industry will significantly reduce future production costs.