NASA unveiled plans for a long-awaited, roughly $35 billion new rocket program designed to dwarf the storied boosters of the Apollo era and powerful enough to launch astronauts to asteroids and eventually to Mars.

The ambitious project, comes after months of disputes with lawmakers and internal White House debates over its hefty price tag. The heavy-lift rocket program “will be the cornerstone of our deep-space human exploration” efforts and ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, said Charles Bolden, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Mr. Bolden’s announcement on Wednesday—surrounded by a clutch of lawmakers on Capitol Hill—kicked off what is likely to be the Obama administration’s uphill effort to sell the concept during a time of escalating concerns about the federal deficit. Some details of the heavy-lift rocket leaked out previously.

With the first unmanned test flight slated for 2017, NASA’s rocket initially uses solid rocket-motor technology derived from the retired space shuttles but then shifts to next-generation liquid-fueled boosters intended to ultimately blast roughly 150 tons, including a six-person capsule already under development, far beyond Earth’s orbit in future decades.

Current Pentagon rockets can launch about 25 tons, and The Saturn V boosters that sent astronauts to the moon had a capacity of about 130 tons.

The rocket is expected to be more than 300 feet tall. NASA projects the rocket’s first manned flight will be in 2021. The agency envisions contractors competing for work on the rockets in later years, opening up potentially lucrative new business for the U.S. aerospace industry.

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