NASA engineers have begun assembling the massive rocket designed to take the first woman to the moon later this decade as part of the Artemis program.
The first booster segment of the Space Launch System (SLS) was stacked on top of the mobile launcher at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida earlier this week in preparation for its maiden flight, NASA said Tuesday.
A total of 10 segments will form the twin solid rocket boosters before its first liftoff, which is expected to take place next year.
The rocket is a key part of NASA's Artemis lunar exploration program, which aims to send the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024. NASA officials also hope the SLS will be used to reach Mars and other "deep space destinations."
Once fully assembled, NASA said the SLS rocket will stand taller than the Statue of Liberty and have about 15% more thrust at liftoff than the Saturn V rockets that powered the Apollo missions about 50 years ago, making it the most powerful rocket ever built.
However, the project has been dogged by delays and cost overruns.
"Stacking the first piece of the SLS rocket on the mobile launcher marks a major milestone for the Artemis Program," said Andrew Shroble, an integrated operations flow manager with Jacobs, a company working with NASA on the Artemis program, in a NASA news release.
"It shows the mission is truly taking shape and will soon head to the launch pad."
NASA's Artemis I mission is expected to launch in 2021 with two test flights around the moon without astronauts. Artemis II is set to launch in 2023 with astronauts on board in preparation to have Artemis III bring astronauts to the surface of the moon.
Artemis is named after the Greek goddess of the moon and is twin sister of Apollo.