By Ashley Strickland, CNN

(CNN) – The launch of Artemis I, an unmanned mission serving as the first step in NASA’s ambitious program to return humans to the moon, has been delayed until at least February, according to the agency .

The mission was originally scheduled to launch in November, but delays due to the pandemic, storms like Hurricane Ida and other factors have lengthened the mission’s schedule.

During the flight, the unmanned Orion spacecraft will be launched atop the SLS rocket to reach the moon and travel thousands of miles beyond it – father than any spacecraft intended to carry humans does. ‘ve never traveled. This mission is expected to last a few weeks and will end with Orion landing in the Pacific Ocean.

The agency finished stacking or securing the Orion spacecraft on top of the giant space launch system rocket just before midnight Thursday at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“With the stacking and integration of the NASA space launch system rocket and the Orion spacecraft, we are increasingly approaching a new era of human exploration in deep space,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “Thanks to the hard work of the team in the design, manufacture, testing and completion of the assembly of the new NASA rocket and spacecraft, we are on the home stretch of preparations for the first launch of the Artemis I mission, paving the way for exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond for many years to come. “

The stack, which stands 322 feet (98 meters) high inside the vehicle assembly building, is set to enter final testing before a launch window that opens on February 12 and closes February 27.

This final step will include integration testing between Orion and the rocket before the entire stack is routed to the launch pad. Then the stack will go through the final test, called a wet dress rehearsal, which includes performing the full set of operations to load the thruster into the fuel tanks and a launch countdown timer – basically whatever is needed. for a launch without actually launching.

If this test, scheduled for January, is successful, the stack will return to the vehicle assembly building until it’s ready to be launched for real.

After the unmanned Artemis I flight, Artemis II will be a crewed moon flyby and Artemis III will bring the astronauts back to the lunar surface, putting a woman and a person of color there for the first time. The timing of subsequent mission launches depends on Artemis I.

“It’s bigger than the Statue of Liberty, and I like to think of it as the Statue of Liberty, because it’s a very complicated piece of equipment, and it’s very inclusive, it represents everyone,” said Tom Whitmeyer, deputy assistant administrator for exploration systems development at NASA, during a press call Friday. “The rocket itself was built with people from all over the United States of America. And this is a very significant achievement for this country.”

While completing the stack is a key step in the end of the mission, there are other difficult priorities ahead, said Mike Sarafin, Artemis I head of mission at NASA Headquarters, during the press call.

Tests like the wet dress rehearsal are designed to ensure that Artemis I is fully prepared. The test results could change the launch date.

“We have deliberately organized a stress test for our Space Launch System rocket and our Orion spacecraft,” said Sarafin. “Our four main goals are to demonstrate Orion’s ability to return from the moon in reentry conditions, to operate our flight systems in the flight environment, to recover our spacecraft, and then what I do. likes to call bonus goals. “

These bonus lenses include the “remarkable photos” which will be captured by wing tip cameras mounted on the wing tips of Orion’s solar panel as it travels between Earth and /// LA /// the moon, while ‘she circles the moon and on her return. home and eventually splashed into the ocean.

“Orion is going to take selfies of himself, and we will see the moon in the background and we will go away,” said Sarafin. “We’re going to see Earth some 270,000 miles away, and really gain a new perspective for the Artemis generation.”

Ultimately, the launch date will determine the duration of the mission.

During the 15-day launch period in February, half of the days could lead to a long class mission, lasting six weeks, while the other days would mean a short class mission lasting approximately four weeks.

If the launch does not take place in February, Artemis I also has the option to take off between March 12 and 27 and between April 8 and 23.

Artemis I will be Orion’s last proving ground before the spacecraft transports astronauts to the Moon, a thousand times father to Earth only where the space station is, said Cathy Koerner, Orion program manager at the NASA’s Johnson Space Center, during the press call.

“It will really demonstrate the capability of our spacecraft, and in more extreme radiation environments,” she said. “We can’t wait to send Orion to the moon and see him operate in this environment.

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