NASA Unveils Their New Launch System

by Nancy Atkinson on September 14, 2011

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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.

About 

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

Peter Knapp September 14, 2011 at 3:52 PM

Something tells me that he didn’t say “The administration is coming forth with plant to flesh out what was passed…”. “…with PLANS perhaps? Horticulture was never NASA’s strong suit.
And [with not problems] probably should be “with no problems” unless he was trying to be funny “with lots of problems….NOT!”
We keep seeing these new configurations. My hope is that one goes forward and Nasa gits ‘er done!

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 9:00 PM

I know of at least one former NASA scientist with a green thumb, my grandfather had more than a hundred orchids in spike when he died. That slightly radioactive man could get nearly anything to grow.

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 4:32 PM

I am disappointed with this decision. While the merits of using ‘proven’ technology sounds reasonable that same technology means that we will still be using ATK’s solid rocket strap ons.

The manufacture and use of those solid fuel strap ons represents a continuing environmental disaster on the Earth and in the upper atmosphere. Ammonium perchlorate composite propellant should be banned! In combination with the ammonium perchlorate is an elastomer binder such as hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB) or polybutadiene acrylic acid acrylonitrile prepolymer (PBAN) both of which are NASTY chemical brews. Spewing those chemicals into the upper atmosphere should be BANNED!

Alas… it appears that once again we seeing where an industrial giant, with nearly unlimited funds, has through it’s lobbyists dictated the technique NASA uses to get into space.

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 4:52 PM

Dang… I know I left my ‘O-rings’ around here somewhere….

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 7:07 PM

My thoughts, as well. These solid motors are mot really a leap forward.

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 11:42 PM

“The manufacture and use of those solid fuel strap ons represents a continuing environmental disaster on the Earth and in the upper atmosphere”

Not to worry…we couldn’t afford to fly it enough to matter.

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 11:42 PM

“The manufacture and use of those solid fuel strap ons represents a continuing environmental disaster on the Earth and in the upper atmosphere”

Not to worry…we couldn’t afford to fly it enough to matter.

Anonymous September 15, 2011 at 6:42 PM

Addendum to my earlier statement: At “brand X”, that is to say ‘Spaceflight Now’ in another story about this rocket. Is a story with the following statement: “But the agency plans to quickly open a competition for follow-on boosters and the first stage core will be designed to accommodate either liquid or solid-fuel strap-ons.”

The word ‘either’ is supposed to allay environmental concerns?

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 4:39 PM

I love it, very sexy!

Torbjörn Larsson September 14, 2011 at 7:11 PM

I still hate the lines of the MPCV, especially the naked service module when the launch adapter is jettisoned, and the butt-ugly SRB technology – but yes. Reminds of Saturn, deliberately so no doubt.

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 7:18 PM

I agree the SM is a bit short. But then again, the orion capsule is wider. compared with Apollo.

Niraj Dave September 14, 2011 at 5:09 PM

Go to Mars first…that’s the real deal…
will result in more spinoff technologies and more jobs for tomorrow and future…

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 5:43 PM

This almost looks like the Saturn V. The term J-2X for the engines causes me to suspect this is in fact derived from the Saturn V.

LC

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 6:24 PM

Saturn V the most sexy rocket ever.
Only the Millennium Falcon can beat that and B-Wings.

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 7:53 PM

The J-2X is a J-2 derived engine built for the Constellation program. In fact, this design reminds me of nothing so much a repainted Ares V.

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 7:53 PM

The J-2X is a J-2 derived engine built for the Constellation program. In fact, this design reminds me of nothing so much a repainted Ares V.

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 5:46 PM

But again, don’t listen to what they say, look at what they do.
This seems to be a big promise and promotional stunt to get more voters for the presidency.

First they kill of any any manned NASA space program putting tons of people without job and then they pretend to create new jobs as these new jobs are something extra. Meanwhile all the tax money goes to the Russians that develop technology and create jobs with American tax money.

HeadAroundU September 14, 2011 at 7:04 PM

Sounds good, if they can keep the promise, I’ll be happy. Hopefully, they can keep funding those key missions. I’d like to see it more accelerated though. It seems like a stretch from 2017 to 2025.

Torbjörn Larsson September 14, 2011 at 7:08 PM

Disappointing. And you just *know* that the double figure is the correct one, but has been aborted from the plate for a while.

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.”

Yes, they did due diligence. Then decided to keep the old costly infrastructure with LOX/LH and SRBs. And also the old costly NASA project strategy of going high-cost until the money runs out, and make do with the haphazard result and some face-saving extra budgeted money.

The only affordable new piece that didn’t remind of Saturn/Shuttle technology and projects would be if they went ahead with the plans to man-rate other launchers to avoid using this behemoth every time.

In fact they don’t need to man-rate this one, except for saving on big manned missions. And then we are back to the Ares I/V concept, except that NASA is rid one expensive SRB for Ares I.

[Hey, does that mean the pork politicians had to compromise on one piece!?]

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 8:25 PM

They’re going to take another 6 years to test recycled technology, which is very polluting, and then add another 4 years to test it with humans! I doubt things will go as planned, so we might have to wait 15 years for a proper test flight and another period of time after that to get to an actual destination! Then this program will get cut part way through, just like Constellation. What the hell?!?!?! Just goes to show that no one will make it to Mars in my lifetime. Not very impressive. :(

Aaron Glafenhein September 14, 2011 at 8:31 PM

this is simply the ares 1 upper stage mounted on the ares V from the constellation program

M Peter Selman September 14, 2011 at 9:41 PM

‘Bout time. Nice idea to give it a Saturn V paint-job. It implies where it may be heading: the glory days of the Apollo era.

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 9:41 PM

oTay… the bottom line is that these gigantic mega corporations have exponentially more economic ‘pull’ than someone like Space-X. WAY BACK IN THE DAY, when I worked for a major aerospace firm in the Los Angeles area, we were working on an early ASARS radar system. I saw incredibly wasted talent generating continuous demand for more (Annual matching) funding. When I went to my section head and complained, saying, “Give me five guys and we’ll get the project done in a month!” His response was, “You don’t understand… Our job is not to get the job done… our job is to employ people… Go back to your desk.”

Socialism? Those funds were from public tax rolls.

Of course he was right… But at what cost to the American taxpayer? What else could we have been done with that money? Short sighted? Yes… Typical even today? Yes….

What’s wrong with that equation? Ask Elan Musk! aka… There’s GOT to be a better way!

R Dub September 14, 2011 at 11:15 PM

This system is one GIANT, SEXY, BEAST!!! I LOVE IT!!! I’ve been eagerly waiting a long time to see America’s next generation Space Shuttle replacement rocket that will be with us for the next at least 30 years or probably longer. I read that every 1 of these rockets launched is equivalent to launching 5 Space Shuttles and that just blows my mind!!! I know there has to be a lot of folks at the pentagon, NSA, CIA, etc. just drooling over the lift capabilities that this baby delivers. Imagine the size of the Military and Super Secret Spy Satellites that could be launched with this system. It boggles the mind! (and probably scares our enemies silly) That might be one reason why they wanted this to be a US government heavy rocket and not go with the SpaceX private civilian company heavy rocket. Hmmm… I do know that I’ll be one happy camper when this system is fully functional and routinely launching. The future of space exploration just got a lot brighter with this announcement. Ad Astra!!!

Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 11:44 PM

“This system is one GIANT, SEXY, BEAST!!! I LOVE IT!!! ”

Yes, well, don’t be fooled. Some lovers are ‘higher maintenance’ than others…

Anonymous September 15, 2011 at 2:59 AM

“…America’s next generation Space Shuttle replacement rocket…”

‘Replacement’ implies it can do at least some of what Shuttle did, but better. This is off in its own direction, with no shuttle-like function. No re-useability except the SRBs, too big for ISS re-supply. It’s not a replacement, it’s just the Next Government Rocket.

“I know there has to be a lot of folks at the pentagon, NSA, CIA, etc. just drooling over the lift capabilities that this baby delivers. Imagine the size of the Military and Super Secret Spy Satellites that could be launched with this system.”

Guess again. Even TLAs (Three Letter Agencies) have finite budgets. They won’t be able to afford an SLS launch, either. (nor will they be in a hurry to put their very expensive sats on an unproven launcher…they know and are comfortable with EELVs) Knowing that it’s beyond their budget, they won’t try to design something so heavy that only SLS can launch it.

“That might be one reason why they wanted this to be a US government heavy rocket and not go with the SpaceX private civilian company heavy rocket. ”

Are you under the impression that you can’t throw extra security around a SpaceX facility for a ‘spooky’ launch? It’s the same Kennedy Space Center. (No one is going to build an SLS pad and building at Vandenberg for polar launches, BTW. Very often, that’s the inclination the TLAs want.)

Remember, no agency but NASA ever used a Saturn V. No one else needed it. Today’s no different. And even NASA didn’t get to use up that production run.

“…this system is fully functional and routinely launching.”

It’s the low probability of ‘routine’ launches that worry me. Low flight rates tend to equal higher individual launch costs, and even NASA was not anxious to have this launcher, Congress was.

Ubbe Åhlin September 15, 2011 at 12:04 AM

Environmental concerns is not the only problem with solid fuel. If I am not mistaken you can not turn them of in case of a problem. The engine only stops when all the solid fuel is used.That makes them a lot more dangerous for the astronauts than rockets running on liquid fuel.

Ethan Walker September 15, 2011 at 1:34 AM

The new york times article http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/15/science/space/15nasa.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&hp says that the SRB’s are only for initial test flights. Huh? Why would you test a vehicle in a radically different configuration than it would ultimately be used in? Wouldn’t that make the tests basically useless? If this is true it may represent some sort of ugly compromise with the politically influential ATK, but I suppose it would be preferable to those boosters being a permanent feature.

Ethan Walker September 15, 2011 at 1:34 AM

The new york times article http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/15/science/space/15nasa.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&hp says that the SRB’s are only for initial test flights. Huh? Why would you test a vehicle in a radically different configuration than it would ultimately be used in? Wouldn’t that make the tests basically useless? If this is true it may represent some sort of ugly compromise with the politically influential ATK, but I suppose it would be preferable to those boosters being a permanent feature.

Anonymous September 15, 2011 at 1:42 AM

Nice! Finally there is something to show NASA is still working on getting humanity ‘out there’

Anonymous September 15, 2011 at 5:55 AM

Saturn ripoff lol, at least change the color scheme so we can have some illusion of progress in design.

Sebastian Frehmel September 15, 2011 at 7:40 AM

Innovation looks different to me…

Tom Bagwell September 15, 2011 at 2:29 PM

This just confirms that we’re going to have to look to private enterprise to actually provide an innovative step forward in spaceflight. The government certainly isn’t going to do so.

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