NASA: Watch the CBS Reports documentary “Artemis: America’s New Moonshot” in the video player above, or stream it on the CBS News app Sunday, Aug. 28 at 8 p.m., 11 p.m. & 2 a.m. ET. 

Five decades after the final flight of NASA’s legendary Saturn 5 moon rocket, the U.S. space agency is poised to launch its most powerful rocket yet Monday for a critical, long-overdue test flight, sending an unpiloted Orion crew capsule on a 42-day voyage around the moon.

Running years behind schedule and billions over budget, the first Space Launch System — SLS — rocket is finally ready for blastoff from pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center at 8:33 a.m. EDT Monday, the opening of a two-hour window. Forecasters are predicting a 70% chance of good weather.

NASA, and Boeing target February for the first crew flight on Starliner spacecraft

Backup launch opportunities are available on September 2 and 5 based on the planned trajectory and the ever-changing positions of the Earth and moon. After that, the flight likely would slip into October.

Cobbled together from left-over space shuttle components, a new core stage, and a modified upper stage borrowed from another rocket, the SLS rocket stands 322 feet tall and will weigh 5.75 million pounds after 750,000 gallons of supercold liquid oxygen and hydrogen rocket fuel are pumped aboard early Monday. (More details in NASA’s SLS Reference Guide.)

At liftoff, the SLS will generate a ground-shaking 8.8 million pounds of thrust from four shuttle-era hydrogen-fueled engines and twin solid rocket boosters packed with 25% more propellant than their shuttle predecessors, providing a breathtaking spectacle for thousands of spaceport workers, area residents, and tourists.

Moonshot: NASA prepares to return to lunar glory with Artemis test flight

“I’m afraid that people think it’s routine,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told CBS News. “But when those candles light off, it’s anything but routine. It is a high-wire act all the way up. … This is a big deal. And it is beautiful. And it is a monster! The size just overwhelms you.”

The primary goal of the Artemis 1 mission is to send Orion to orbit around the moon and in the process, set up a 25,000-mph plunge back into Earth’s atmosphere on October 10. The top priority of the mission is to make sure the capsule’s 16.5-foot-wide heat shield can protect returning astronauts from the 5,000-degree inferno of re-entry on a future flight.

“This is a test flight. It’s not without risk,” Bob Cabana, a former shuttle commander and now a NASA associate administrator, said of the first SLS flight. “We have analyzed the risk as best we can and we’ve mitigated it as best we can. But we are stressing Orion beyond what it was designed for in preparation for sending it to the moon with a crew.

Artemis I Launch Will Test NASA’s Mission to Return Humans to the Moon

“And we want to make sure it works perfectly when we do that and that we understand all the risks,” he said. “We’re going to learn a lot from this test flight.”

Returning Americans to the moon

If the unpiloted Artemis 1 test flight goes well, NASA plans to launch four astronauts atop the second SLS rocket for an around-the-moon shakedown flight in 2024 — Artemis 2 — before the first woman and the first person of color touch down near the moon’s south pole in 2025 or 2026.

After that, NASA intends to launch a steady stream of Artemis moon missions, sending astronauts to the south polar region once every year or so for research and to search for ice deposits in permanently shadowed craters, a resource future crews could convert into rocket fuel, air, and water.

NASA astronaut ready for Soyuz flight to ISS

But first, Artemis astronauts and spacecraft have to get there. And that requires a rocket capable of boosting the men, women, and machines out of Earth’s gravitational clutches and across the 240,000-mile gulf to the moon with sufficient fuel, supplies, and equipment to mount a meaningful mission and get the crew safely home when it’s over.

“She is an incredible rocket,” Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, NASA’s first female launch director, told CBS News. “She brings a whole new capability to our nation’s space program, a new heavy lift capability for deep space exploration.

“It’s going to change how we explore. It’s going to return our nation to the moon, and it is going to pave the way for our next steps as we prepare to go someplace like Mars, and even destinations beyond.”

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