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.