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NASA begins countdown for its mission around the moon

DAVID GURA, HOST:

NASA is on the verge of a historic rocket launch. Tomorrow morning, the agency plans to send a space capsule on a mission around the moon. And if this first test flight goes well, this vehicle could soon take astronauts back to the moon. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce joins us now from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Good morning, Nell.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hey there.

GURA: So I assume you can see this rocket from where you are. What does it look like, and what's the scene there at the launch site?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, I'm standing next to the big countdown clock and right by the giant vehicle assembly building with the American flag on it. And I can see the rocket off in the distance. It's got a big, orange fuel tank in between two solid rockets. At the top, there's the crew capsule, which is bell-shaped. The whole thing is 32 stories tall.

GURA: How does this rocket, which does sound enormous, as you describe it, compare to the famous rocket that took astronauts to the moon 50 years ago?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA says this one is actually more powerful than the Saturn V, and NASA's been working on this for over a decade. So the stakes are huge for the space agency. A lot of people are gathered here. There's hundreds of reporters, cameras being set up. Everyone just wants to see this go.

GURA: Just to be clear, no people will be on board this rocket, right? This is a test flight of the hardware. They'll control this thing from the ground.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's right, yes. There's a few mannequins on board with sensors to do things like test out a radiation protection vest. Everything on this flight is chock full of sensors. There's thousands and thousands all over the rocket. And the idea is to get a good sense of what stresses this rocket experiences on the way up and what astronauts would experience once they're riding this thing to space. The whole mission, including zooming around the moon, is going to take about six weeks.

GURA: Six weeks - that's a long time - more than a month. But this time around, there's no lunar landing plan, right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right, no, it'll do all kinds of orbits. The closest it'll get to the surface of the moon is within about 60 miles. It'll go out farther into space than any spacecraft built for humans has ever gone before, though. And the whole journey is going to be over a million miles in total.

GURA: How does it return to Earth at the end?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It comes in for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, just like in the Apollo days. NASA says it'll hit the atmosphere at over 24,000 miles per hour. So one of the things they'll be testing out, of course, is the heat shield and the parachutes.

GURA: So assuming all goes well - six weeks hence - with the trip and the return, when exactly will there be people in that bell-shaped crew capsule?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It'll be a couple of years. NASA is planning that the next launch of this rocket will be in 2024. That one will also be a trip around the moon and back. It won't land on the moon. The third rocket launch is the one that'll try to put people on the lunar surface. And NASA says it wants to put the first woman and the first person of color on the moon by 2025. But, you know, there's often delays.

GURA: That is so true. Nell, it doesn't sound like this rocket is going to be flying that frequently - what? - every two years or so?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That is something critics say is a real problem. Part of that is related to the rocket's cost. And this is a really expensive rocket. The effort to build it was plagued by delays and cost overruns. NASA's inspector general has said that its first three flights will cost over $4 billion each.

GURA: Four billion dollars each - when is NASA's rocket expected to blast off? When can we see some action there at the Kennedy Space Center?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, if the weather cooperates and there's no glitches, the first opportunity is Monday morning at 8:33 a.m. Eastern time. And, you know, if something happens and they can't try then, they have another opportunity later in the week.

GURA: We'll be watching with you, of course. That's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce in Florida. Nell, thanks.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce
Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.