An illustration depicts NASA's SLS moon rocket shortly after launch from Florida as boosters separate. Image courtesy of NASA
ORLANDO, Fla., Feb. 24 (UPI) -- NASA officials said Thursday the space agency is making progress toward a crucial test in mid-March of the first moon rocket since the Apollo-era but the agency did not set a new launch date for the first lunar mission.
NASA plans the full "wet-dress rehearsal" of the SLS moon rocket on the pad at 6 p.m. ET on March 17.
The first such mission to the moon, although uncrewed, may happen in May, NASA's Tom Whitmeyer, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, said in a teleconference for reporters Thursday.
NASA continues to evaluate a May launch, but "we're also recognizing that there's a lot of work in front of us and we need to make sure we get through that testing and through that evaluation activity before we set the date."
Thursday's announcement is only the latest in a series of delays for the first new lunar mission in years.
The Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule will roll slowly out of the space center's massive Vehicle Assembly Building to Complex 39B, about four miles away.
The rollout will be the first time a NASA rocket so large -- 322 feet tall -- has moved to a launch pad since Apollo 17's Saturn V rocket did so before launching three astronauts to the moon in 1972.
NASA officials providing the update Thursday included Whitmeyer; Mike Bolger, program manager for exploration ground systems; and Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager.
The final test in March, known as the wet dress rehearsal, will provide practice for ground teams as they load propellant into the rocket's tanks and conduct a full launch countdown.
After the test, NASA will roll the rocket back into the Vehicle Assembly Building for final checks. Only then will the agency set a launch date.
NASA intends to land the first woman and the first person of color on the surface of the Moon in 2025, paving the way for a long-term lunar presence and serving as a base to study crewed missions to Mars eventually.
NASA announced this month that its plan to launch the Artemis I SLS rocket on an uncrewed journey around the moon has slipped from March to April or May.
The space agency said it wasn't working on any "major issues" but that engineers simply needed more time to run final checks on the completely new launch system.
Such activities included testing of the flight termination system, which blows up the rocket in case it should malfunction and fly off course, which could create a hazard.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic also has continued to create delays due to illness or quarantine among staff and because of supply chain problems, NASA officials have said.
The first lunar mission in decades will help NASA understand how the giant new rocket and the Orion capsule work in preparation for a crewed launch and eventual moon landing.
The uncrewed rocket will carry mannequins in the Orion capsule, which will fly further past the moon than any crew-capable spacecraft ever has.
The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA