Space

NASA announces world’s biggest-ever rocket to take man to Mars and beyond

NASA announces world’s biggest...
The Space Launch System (SLS) is designed to expand man's reach in the solar system (Image: NASA)
The Space Launch System (SLS) is designed to expand man's reach in the solar system (Image: NASA)
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SLS initial and evolved configurations
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SLS initial and evolved configurations
Artist concept of SLS launching (Image: NASA)
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Artist concept of SLS launching (Image: NASA)
Artist concept of SLS on launchpad (Image: NASA)
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Artist concept of SLS on launchpad (Image: NASA)
The Space Launch System (SLS) is designed to expand man's reach in the solar system (Image: NASA)
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The Space Launch System (SLS) is designed to expand man's reach in the solar system (Image: NASA)

With the curtain coming down on the Space Shuttle Program, NASA has set its sights on the future with the announcement of a heavy-lift launch vehicle that is designed to take man beyond the moon to explore near-Earth asteroids, Mars and its moons, and beyond. Dubbed the Space Launch System (SLS) its configuration harks back to the Saturn V rocket-based systems employed to propel Apollo astronauts to the moon but also incorporates technology developed in the Shuttle Program.

The SLS will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system, which will include the RS-25D/E from the Space Shuttle Program for the core stage and the Saturn V-derived J-2X rocket engine for the upper stage. However, initial development flights will also use solid rocket boosters. The SLS will have an initial lift capacity of 70 metric tons (154,324 lbs), which NASA points out is roughly the weight of 40 SUVs. An evolved SLS will then see lift capacity increased to 130 metric tons (286,600 lbs), which by NASA's logic would be roughly the weight of 75 SUVs.

The initial SLS will weigh 2,500 metric tons (5.5 million pounds) and stand taller than the Statue of Liberty, at 97.5 m (320 ft) high. At liftoff it will generate 8.4 million pounds of thrust, which is 10 percent more than the Saturn V. The subsequent evolved SLS will weigh 2,950 metric tons (6.5 million pounds) and stand 122 m (400 ft) high. At liftoff it will generate 9.2 million pounds of thrust, which is 20 percent more than the Saturn V at liftoff.

SLS initial and evolved configurations
SLS initial and evolved configurations

NASA says the SLS's architecture provides a launch vehicle that can be adapted to suit different missions through the use of different core stage, upper stage, and first-stage booster combinations. This flexibility is designed to allow it to more economically carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, as well as cargo, equipment and science experiments to as low as Earth's orbit and as far as Mars and beyond. While NASA is looking to save money by having private companies ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), the SLS will also serve as a backup for commercial and international partner transportation services to the ISS.

The SLS was unveiled by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and several members of Congress on Wednesday, with Bolden saying, "President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that's exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow's explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars."

Artist concept of SLS on launchpad (Image: NASA)
Artist concept of SLS on launchpad (Image: NASA)

Dreaming big is fine, but with an estimated cost of US$18 billion just for the next five years and the U.S. Government constantly modifying NASA's budget, it remains to be seen whether NASA will be able to make its dream reality. NASA stresses that the SLS architecture benefits from significantly reduced development and operations costs as it leverages existing capabilities resulting from the Space Shuttle and Constellation Programs. NASA says the early developmental flights may take advantage of existing solid boosters and other existing hardware, while a competition will be held to develop the boosters.

"NASA has been making steady progress toward realizing the president's goal of deep space exploration, while doing so in a more affordable way," NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said. "We have been driving down the costs on the Space Launch System and Orion contracts by adopting new ways of doing business and project hundreds of millions of dollars of savings each year."

The first SLS unmanned developmental flight is targeted for the end of 2017 with the first manned flight penciled in for 2021. NASA then aims to follow up with a manned mission to a nearby asteroid around 2025 and one to Mars in the 2030s.

New Heavy-Lift Rocket to Take Humans Far Beyond Earth

40 comments
Charles Gaines
It\'s beyond bullshit that 18 billion over five years is politically controversial. That is nothing as far as government spending goes.
VoiceofReason
This will create jobs as well as push science. Better that than another useless stimulus package.
Nelson
America has better things to spend its money on like fixing our infastructure.
Gabe Ets-Hokin
They would save a bunch of money if they lifted 40 small sedans instead. No need to thank me, America.
donwine
Charles is right - all US government spending adds up to a billion in spending every 2 hours. However when it comes to knowledge I would like to know: Why do we know far more about space than we know about the oceans? We live here and not in space so why couldn\'t we clean up our planet home before cluttering up more space with junk? All the problems on earth are getting worse so how is space travel going to help? Is this showing the world that hunger, jobs, health care for all etc.... are of no concern? To illustrate - could I fix up my home by leaving it and moving elsewhere? Will man be allowed to escape from his responsibilities and care for his home planet?
bgstrong
This is nothing but a political smokescreen by Obama to cover the fact that he has spent all of NASA\'s money and does not want it to be another black mark against him in the 2012 election....NASA has become just another bloated obsolete Govt. bureaucracy / labor union and needs to be completely redirected as a non-union entity..
roger_rethinker
I believe it is true that accelerating the entire rocket assembly on an appropriate launch trajectory improves the energy efficiency of launch significantly. Is anyone out there interested enough to calculate how much more efficient the launch would be if the entire rocket was accelerated to say 400 km per hour, and released at 8000 feet, pointed in the right direction, prior to firing the rockets? I think it is true that by putting a \"zeroth\" stage under the rocket based on high speed electric train technology taKING IT UP TO 300-500 km/hour and the correct trajectorty, that the mass delivered to orbit would increase greatly.
alcalde
\"Better that than another useless stimulus package. \" Government spending that creates jobs IS a stimulus package. This approach still seems like a step backwards from the shuttle program.
Michael Mantion
First he cancels the constellation program which was years into progress saying that going to the moon and beyond is not in the budget. He wastes all that time and money and then starts this?? Really? liquid hydrogen? that was the main flaw with the space shuttle. Liquid rockets have some value, but solid fuel is definitely the way to go. He wastes 10\'s of billions of dollars and a decade of progress. saying it was behind schedule and over budget. Then he creates a new program that cost 10x as much and will take 10 years longer??? WHY oh WHY. Its like going to a restaurant. Paying for your food, get annoyed its taking too long, walk out, then walk right back in stand in line order food, pay extra money for it and tell them to wait a bit before they make it.
solutions4circuits
A much better spend than the spend on infrastructure. A paved road does nothing to make us competitive with the Chinese, who are our economic enemy. The USA needs to put an end to any stimulus that cannot show a return on investment in terms of revenue or in terms of tech superiority over China and India. This heavy lifter\'s components also allow the US to lob a \"big one\" at China - a threat that will keep that military dog muzzled.