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The Boeing Co. says it has finalized a $2.8 billion contract with NASA to develop the core stage of the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, which is destined to send humans beyond the moon's orbit for the first time. The agreement, announced Wednesday, comes as NASA and Boeing complete a critical design review of the core stage — the last review before full production begins.

The SLS is to get its first uncrewed test flight in 2017, and its first crewed flight in 2021 or so — opening the way to a rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and journeys to Mars and its moons in the 2030s. A different company, Lockheed Martin, is in charge of developing the Orion crew vehicle that is to fly atop the SLS. NASA estimates that it could spend $18 billion on SLS and Orion by 2017. Some observers, including former NASA official Lori Garver, have said NASA should cancel SLS and instead rely on commercial launch vehicles.

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— Alan Boyle, NBC News