Washington: Engineers have now assembled the first major piece of core stage hardware for NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket which is designed to herald a new era of exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, launching crew and cargo on deep space exploration missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

It now is ready to be joined with other hardware for Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and the Orion spacecraft, NASA said in a statement on Wednesday.

The 212-foot-tall core stage, referred to as the "backbone" of the rocket by NASA, will contain the SLS rocket's four RS-25 rocket engines, propellant tanks, flight computers and much more.

Though the smallest part of the core stage, the forward skirt will serve two critical roles. It will connect the upper part of the rocket to the core stage and house many of the flight computers, or avionics.

"Completion of the core stage forward skirt is a major step in NASA's progress to the launch pad," said Deborah Bagdigian, lead manager for the forward skirt at the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

"We're putting into practice the steps and processes needed to assemble the largest rocket stage ever built. With the forward skirt, we are improving and refining how we'll conduct final assembly of the rest of the rocket," Bagdigian said.

As part of forward skirt testing, the flight computers came to life for the first time as NASA engineers tested critical avionic systems that will control the rocket's flight.

Located throughout the core stage, the avionics are the rocket's "brains," controlling navigation and communication during launch and flight.

It is critical that each of the avionics units is installed correctly, work as expected and communicate with each other and other components, including the Orion spacecraft and ground support systems.

"It was amazing to see the computers come to life for the first time," said Lisa Espy, lead test engineer for SLS core stage avionics.

"These are the computers that will control the rocket as it soars off the pad for Exploration Mission-1," Espy added.

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