By Faro Hasan, CNN • Updated 23rd September 2016
NASA is targeting February 17 for the planned launch of its Space Launch System mission to the moon, the first so-called heavy-lift mission to land on another celestial body since the Apollo lunar landings nearly four decades ago.
The 100-ton rocket will carry its very own Orion spacecraft and some 70 metric tons of cargo, two to three times the volume of a lunar lander.
And its moon landing — a first for a mission this big — is targeted for 2021, NASA says.
The six stage Space Launch System rocket system and two Orion spacecraft is currently being tested and advanced designs are expected to go into production by 2019, according to aerospace company Lockheed Martin , which is building the Orion spacecraft.
More than 10 years in the making
The space agency says the first of the nine test flights to the moon will be a “minor” one of 6.5 million pounds (3.7 metric tons) of payload at an altitude of 30 miles and a velocity of 17,000 miles per hour (28,300 kilometers per hour).
The Space Launch System and Orion space capsule would reach the lunar surface in 2019 and arrive at the Kennedy Space Center for landing on January 31, 2021.
During the five day mission, the capsule will fly through and over the Moon’s shadows, experiment to study the moon’s composition.
Both of the vehicles will then remain in lunar orbit for about a year before departing for a return trip to Earth.
The flight tests are currently being conducted by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, under the direction of Boeing and ATK , in Huntsville, Alabama.
Three more flight tests will be conducted by Marshall before the first flight test to the moon, the agency said.