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A NASA crew capsule is on its way to the moon

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A spacecraft designed to carry astronauts is on its way to the moon after NASA finally got its massive new moon rocket off the ground this morning. Images sent back by the vehicle show a suited-up mannequin strapped into the commander's seat; plus, a view of Earth looking like a blue marble, just as it did in the days of NASA's Apollo moon missions. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on what the space agency hopes to achieve with this critical test flight.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: In the pre-dawn darkness, NASA's launch team at Kennedy Space Center grappled with a hydrogen fuel leak and a faulty Ethernet switch. But then...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Seven, six, five, four-stage engine start, three, two, one, boosters and ignition. And lift off of Artemis 1.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The Artemis rocket thundered to life as NASA Administrator Bill Nelson watched from a rooftop with a group of astronauts.

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BILL NELSON: I'm telling you, we've never seen such a tail of flame. There were a bunch there that would like to be on that rocket.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: People could fly on the next launch in a couple of years if this first flight goes well. Nelson says NASA has to put the crew capsule through its paces to see how it performs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NELSON: And we are stressing it and testing it in ways that we will not do to a rocket that has a human crew on it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The capsule will travel over a million miles on a journey that will last more than three weeks. On Monday, it will pass by the moon around 60 miles or so from its surface and then go into a distant orbit. Mike Sarafin is NASA's mission manager for this shakedown cruise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE SARAFIN: We're just going to work it day by day, and we need to work it with vigilance. And we are going to do some extraordinarily hard stuff.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A key moment will come on December 11 when the capsule re-enters the Earth's atmosphere, going mark 32 - over 24,000 miles per hour. Assuming the capsule's heat shield keeps it from burning up, parachutes will deploy as it comes down over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego.

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SARAFIN: I personally am not going to rest well until we get safely to splashdown and recovery.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Because NASA has a lot more riding on this flight than just a mannequin. The agency has spent over a decade and billions of dollars developing this capsule and rocket. NASA has vowed to go back to the moon and put the first woman and the first person of color on the lunar surface. It's been almost 50 years since the last Apollo mission there in December of 1972. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.