By Sarah Hatton, for CNN • Updated 3rd September 2017
The launch of the first moon rocket to lift off since the Apollo 11 mission nearly 50 years ago has been targeted for late February, NASA announced Wednesday.
The Gateway, or lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, will send science missions to the moon as well as future human missions. Its first stage is expected to lift off in February, with the second stage following shortly afterward.
“The launch of the OPP-Gateway is a vital step in our exploration of space and we are on track to launch in February,” Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, said in a statement.
The Gateway — a huge complex of landing facilities, laboratories and a robotic relay satellite — is currently under construction at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The facility is expected to come online by 2021.
Seamless lunar transport for future astronauts
The Orion spacecraft will be used to reach the near-Earth asteroids in the 2020s, and then on to Mars in the 2030s.
Lunar flight vehicles will also have a role in transporting astronauts from the ISS to the moon.
The spacecraft’s modules, called modules, will launch into the lunar orbit at a distance of 600 miles (900 kilometers) and will rely on the OPP-Gateway for resupply.
This first human lunar rover, called a mule, will conduct geological exploration and return samples to the researchers.
When the Gateway flies to the moon it will orbit at an altitude of 6,300 miles (10,000 kilometers), making it the first node on the emerging lunar infrastructure.
The Gateway is similar to the International Space Station in appearance and size. In addition to the OPP-Gateway’s docking with Orion, the node will also be the largest structure in the space station’s 39-year history, standing at 240 feet (76 meters) tall.
The shuttle-class Orion spacecraft and its sister ship, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, will carry America’s astronauts to the asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s.
President Donald Trump announced in January that the final test flight of the manned Orion would take place in late 2021 — two years later than originally planned.
Why the Orion spacecraft is coming late
Last year, NASA launched a new spacecraft design dubbed the New Space Exploration Vehicle (NSEV), the beginning of a new NASA blueprint for taking astronauts to the moon.
The NSEV looks similar to the Orion capsule that was designed as a stepping stone towards getting humans back to the moon, but with improvements to the launch vehicle, avionics, interfaces and avionics engines.
It is expected to cost around $2.6 billion over four years. It is also not yet clear when that first NSEV mission will launch.
However, there have been some promising developments.
These developments include the increase in the chances of the U.S. government not losing the rights to the space shuttle to Russia, as the United States was forced to surrender them following the retirement of the space shuttle fleet.
Meanwhile, last year it emerged that the last test flight of the Orion spacecraft would take place in late 2021.