September 19, 2011
NASA on Wednesday unveiled its
long-awaited plans for a new, powerful rocket to take astronauts beyond
low-Earth orbit to the Moon, to asteroids and, one day, to Mars.
concept of SLS launching. (NASA)
NASA has selected the design of a massive rocket that will take humans
beyond low-Earth-orbit into deep space, and the space agency says it
hopes to fire up this rocket in late 2017 for an unmanned test mission.
NASA's chief, Charles Bolden, says the agency is ready to move ahead
with the Space Launch System or SLS, a rather dry name for what NASA
says will be the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, and that
will take people farther into space than ever before.
"The SLS will be the cornerstone of our deep-space human exploration
program," said Bolden. "President Obama has challenged us at NASA to be
bold and to dream big, and that's exactly what we do. While I was proud
to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow's explorers will dream of one day
walking on Mars."
President Barack Obama has set the goal of a manned-mission to an
asteroid by 2025 and to Mars the following decade.
The Space Launch System will be NASA's first exploration-class vehicle
since the Saturn V, which carried astronauts to the moon more than 40
years ago. But this new rocket will have 10 to 20 percent more thrust
than the Saturn V. In more relatable terms, the final version of the SLS
would have more than 34 times the total thrust of a 747 jet.
NASA envisions two versions of the SLS, with the initial version being
nearly 100 meters tall and able to carry 70 metric tons - about the
weight of 12 adult elephants. The second "evolved" version would be even
taller - 122 meters - and able to carry the equivalent of 21 full-grown
elephants into space.
The SLS will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system,
and the colossal rocket's core is similar to the orange-colored external
tank that was used in the space shuttle's launch configuration. It will
have five main rocket engines.
The new capsule that will carry the crew, called the Orion Multi-Purpose
Crew Vehicle, is being built. The crew module would sit at the top of
the launch system. In the event of a launchpad explosion or failure
during ascent, the module will have an abort system that would rocket it
away from the launch vehicle and carry the astronauts to a safe
But, innovation does not come cheap. NASA estimates the program will
cost $18 billion over the next six years - and that is just through the
unmanned test flight. The cost includes the rocket, capsule, and efforts
to reconfigure the launch facilities at the Kennedy Space Center in
Kay Bailey Hutchison is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on
Commerce, Science and Transportation. Speaking alongside other lawmakers
and NASA's Bolden Wednesday, she said this plan enjoys bipartisan
support in Congress.
believe that we will get the funding," she said. "I will just use as an
example - even some of the strongest budget cutters on my side of the
aisle have put forward massive cuts, but they have not cut the core
mission of NASA because they see that as a part of the American spirit
and most certainly part of the American economy and America's national
The SLS will benefit from the technological strides made in the space
shuttle program as well as the now-defunct Constellation program, which
was developing a replacement for the shuttle fleet that was retired in
Officials say building on other programs will take advantage of hardware
that is known to work and will reduce development and operations costs.
NASA says the new launch system design is adaptable, and it will allow
engineers to use different core and booster combinations, depending on
the mission. Although commercial enterprises have been tasked with
developing vehicles to ferry cargo and astronauts to-and-from the
International Space Station, NASA says its new deep-space rocket will
also serve as a back up.