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HOUSTON – NASA’s delayed return to the moon could be a go as soon as February 2022, the space agency confirmed during a Friday news conference.

The unmanned launch of NASA’s Space Launch System, tentatively scheduled for a two-week window beginning Feb. 12, will loft its Orion capsule for a quick test flight around the moon and return trip to Earth, The New York Times reported.

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“We are on track to fly, and this team will be ready when our flight hardware is ready,” Mike Sarafin, the NASA official who is the mission’s manager, stated during the news conference.

The SLS – intended to launch next-generation, deep-space operations, including NASA’s Artemis missions – was originally slated to launch in November, Fox News reported.

The launch’s timeline is dependent on ground tests, including a January “dress rehearsal” for the launch. NASA also announced two additional two-week, unmanned flight periods in March and April that are based on the moon’s alignment with Earth, the Times reported.

The unmanned launch, dubbed Artemis-1, will test the vehicle’s safety, and if successful, should pave the way for the launch of Artemis-2, a similar crewed voyage that will “echo the Apollo 8 mission in 1968,” the newspaper reported.

The last humans who set foot on the moon were part of the 1972 Apollo 17 mission, and the Artemis missions are designed to carry astronauts, including the first woman and the first person of color, back to the lunar surface in the coming years, Fox News reported.

“It’s hard to put into words what this milestone means, not only to us here at Exploration Ground Systems, but to all the incredibly talented people who have worked so hard to help us get to this point,” Mike Bolger, Exploration Ground Systems program manager, said in a statement.

“Our team has demonstrated tremendous dedication preparing for the launch of Artemis I. While there is still work to be done to get to launch, with continued integrated tests and Wet Dress Rehearsal, seeing the fully stacked SLS is certainly a reward for all of us,” he added.

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