NASA Unveils Their New Launch System

by Nancy Atkinson on September 14, 2011

Artist concept of SLS on launchpad. Credit: NASA

NASA Adminstrator Charlie Bolden and several members of Congress announced today the decision on NASA’s next heavy lift vehicle that will bring humans to asteroids and eventually to Mars. Billed as the most powerful rocket in history, the new Space Launch System (SLS) will combine proven technology from the space shuttle program along with things already developed in the Constellation program “in order to take advantage of proven hardware and cutting-edge tooling and manufacturing technology that will significantly reduce development and operations costs,” NASA said.

With a rocket over 30 stories tall, it will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system, with a 5 space shuttle main engines and an improved J-2X engine for the upper stage. The SLS will have an initial lift capacity of 70 metric tons (mT) and will be evolvable to 130 mT.

“This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world,” said Bolden. “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, kids today can now dream of one day walking on Mars.”

“The administration is coming forth with a plan to flesh out what was passed in NASA authorization bill a year ago,” said Senator Bill Nelson at the announcement at the nation’s capital. “This is a plan forward, that keeps the ISS alive until at least 2020, with series of commercial rockets taking crew and cargo there that allows NASA to get out beyond low Earth orbit and start to explore the heavens, which is the job NASA has always been tasked to do.”

Nelson said the new rocket is coming in at a cost of less than what was originally estimated, not double, as was reportedly leaked a week ago – that Congress was having “sticker shock” about the new launch system. “Over a 5-6 year period in the authorization bill, the cost for the rocket was to be no more than $11.5 billion, and this new system’s cost is $10 million cost for rocket,” Nelson said. Additionally, the projected cost for the Orion MPCV is 6 billion and the reworking of ground support to launch the rocket is about $2 billion, for a total of $18 billion from now until 2017, when the system should be ready for its first test launch, with the first piloted shakedown flight coming in about 2021.

U.S. astronauts then would make preliminary test flights about once a year before heading to an asteroid in 2025.

The new SLS on the launchpad. Credit: NASA

Why did it take so long for NASA to come up with this plan, which really, is nothing new under the sun?

“This requires a major commitment of the American taxpayers,” Bolden said, “and that’s why we’ve done the due diligence of doing it right in a more affordable way, and looked towards driving down costs by adopting new ways of doing things.”

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson said she was very excited about this rocket system and its long-term future. “We can’t have the preeminence we’ve had in space without seeing beyond the intermediate goal, which is the space station,” she said. “I don’t want to raise the hopes that everything will go on in a box [with no problems], because we are pushing the enveloping and going to the next level in space leadership so that we are not going to be the also-rans. We’ll be finding out capabilities that we haven’t even discovered yet, and discovering things that will help us on Earth. This is a great day for America, as it is a commitment that NASA is going to lead the pack.”

Hutchinson also noted that the priorities for NASA right now are this launch system, commercial crew and cargo for the ISS and the James Webb Space Telescope.

Hutchinson is the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that authorizes NASA activities and is also the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that appropriates NASA’s funding.

NASA said this specific architecture was selected for the SLS, largely because it utilizes an evolvable development approach, which allows NASA to address high-cost development activities early on in the program and take advantage of higher buying power before inflation erodes the available funding of a fixed budget. This architecture also enables NASA to leverage existing capabilities and lower development costs by using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for both the core and upper stages. Additionally, this architecture provides a modular launch vehicle that can be configured for specific mission needs using a variation of common elements. NASA may not need to lift 130 mT for each mission and the flexibility of this modular architecture allows the agency to use different core stage, upper stage, and first-stage booster combinations to achieve the most efficient launch vehicle for the desired mission.

See more at NASA’s new SLS webpage.


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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