Artist's rendering of NASA's Space Launch System (credit: NASA/MSFC)
NASA has worked on some inspiring interplanetary projects in the last few years, but few have been as ambitious as the simply-named Space Launch System, a new rocket that will be the largest ever built at 384 feet tall, surpassing even the mighty Saturn V (363 feet), the rocket that took humanity to the moon. It will also be more powerful, with 20 percent more thrust using liquid hydrogen and oxygen as fuel. Last week, NASA announced that the Space Launch System, SLS for short, is on track to perform its first unmanned test launch in 2018. The larger goal is to carry humans into orbit around an asteroid, and then to Mars by the 2030s. After that, NASA says the rocket could be used to reach Saturn and Jupiter.
At the moment, even getting off the ground would be progress: since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has been left without any domestic capability to launch American astronauts into space; instead it has been purchasing rides for them aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft at high cost. While SpaceX and other private companies are working furiously to provide their own human passenger spacecraft for travel into Earth's orbit, NASA wants to go even further. The agency has begun testing models of the SLS and initial construction of some the major components. It says the first test flight will have an initial cost of $7 billion. The SLS will also be reusing some leftover parts from the inventory of the retired Space Shuttle, including its engines.
However, as with many large NASA projects, the SLS has already been delayed from an initial flight in 2017, and lawmakers in Congress, who must approve NASA's budget, are concerned about further delays and cost overruns. Whether NASA is able to keep the project on track remains to be seen, but at the moment, it's all systems go. Check out the progress and promise in photos and conceptual illustrations below.
- Model spacecraft NASA tested a small, scale model of the SLS in a wind tunnel at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, in November 2013. (Credit: NASA/ARC/Dominic Hart)
- Testing for liftoff NASA engineers used a 67.5-inch model to test how environmental factors including wind and water would affect the rocket on the launchpad. (Credit: NASA/LaRC)
- Start (building) your engines NASA's Space Launch System rocket will reuse the RS-25D engine that took the Space Shuttle into orbit before its retirement in 2011. (Credit: NASA/KSC)
- Hot fire In August 2013, NASA performed a "hot fire" test of the modified RS-25 engine, for which which will be used on the Space Launch System. (Credit: NASA/MSFC)
- The blueprint Artist's rendering of a blueprint of the completed Space Launch System. (Credit: NASA/MSFC
- Crew module NASA's plans originally called for the SLS to be paired with a separate crew capsule called Orion that would carry astronauts. The agency has also been testing a Composite Crew Module (CCM) to help inform the design of Orion. (Credit:NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given)
- Rocket assembly Artist's rendering of the Orion crew capsule (top) being placed on the Space Launch System at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida (Credit: NASA/MSFC
- Ready for launch Artist's rendering of the Space Launch System sitting on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Credit: NASA/MSFC)
- Blast-off Artist's rendering of the SLS blasting off. (Credit: NASA/MSFC)
- Separation Artist's rendering of the booster rockets separating from the SLS during flight in Earth's orbit. (Credit: NASA/MSFC)
- Crew capsule Artist's rendering showing the Orion crew capsule at the top of the SLS after both booster rockets have separated. (Credit: NASA/MSFC)
- The complete Space Launch System Artist's rendering of the 70-metric-ton version of the Space Launch System broken into its distinct components. NASA plans to build two versions of the SLS, a 70-metric-ton one shown here, and a larger 130-metric-ton version that can carry more fuel and go further into the solar system. (Credit: NASA.)