While NASA is leaving low Earth orbit and manned lunar ambitions to private spaceflight companies, the agency has been tasked by the Obama administration with taking the U.S. beyond the moon. To that end, NASA is revealing its most powerful rocket to date, the Space Launch System.
Unveiled by NASA big cheese Charles Bolden and members of Congress, the Space Launch System (SLS) is another piece of the Deep Space Transportation System puzzle. Namely, it will ultimately serve as the launch vehicle for the six-man Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle capsule.
The SLS uses the kind of liquid fuel NASA's old Saturn V rockets did (which launched moon-bound missions and still hold the title of most powerful to date), rather than the solid rocket boosters used by the shuttles. That means the SLS is more powerful, but more expensive, too, and NASA may only be able to build and launch one a year.
It will also be able to lug far heavier payloads into space than the shuttle fleet was able to, or any current NASA rocket for that matter. The shuttles could take 27 tons at most, and NASA's beefiest unmanned rockets top out at 25. The SLS will carry up to 110 tons of cargo to start, with the aim of taking a payload of more than 150 tons in the future. That would put it in the running with SpaceX's Falcon Heavy for king of the rockets, which it looks like NASA's SLS would win.
NASA hopes to have the SLS ready for test flights in six years, with the aim of ultimately sending a manned mission to Mars by the 2030s. Along the way, NASA officials — speaking anonymously to the New York Times — said that this road map would include the first unmanned tests by 2017, the first crew flight in 2021, sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, and finally circling Mars and putting boots on the red planet by the 2030s. After that? Who knows.
Want to see a pretend liftoff of the new rocket? Check out the animation below, courtesy of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.