NASA’s Space Launch System, the US’s first exploration-class spacecraft since the Space Shuttle, is a central component in the agency’s plan to restore its ability to independently launch missions into space. An after a thorough review of cost and engineering issues, NASA managers formally approved the mammoth rocket past the whiteboard formulation stage and moved it into full-scale development.
As the world’s most powerful rocket ever built and is intended to take astronauts farther beyond Earth into deep space than ever before possible. This includes the first-ever manned mission to Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and perhaps other planets and moons throughout the Solar System as well. The first SLS mission should lift off no later than 2018, sending the Orion capsule around the Moon, with asteroid and Mars-bound missions following after 2030 or 2032.
NASA began the SLS’s design process back in 2011. Back then, the stated goal was to try and re-use as many Space Shuttle components and get back into deep space as quickly and as cost effectively as possible. But now that the formulation stage has been completed, and focus has shifted to actually developing and fabricating the launch system’s millions of constituent components, what kind of missions the SLS will be capable of has become much clearer.
At a press briefing that took place at their Operations Mission Directorate in Washington, Aug. 27th, NASA officials shared details about the maiden test launch. Known as EM-1, the launch is targeted for November 2018 and will involve the SLS carrying an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a journey lasting roughly three weeks that will take it beyond the Moon to a distant retrograde orbit.
Previously NASA had been targeting Dec. 2017 for the inaugural launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But the new Nov. 2018 target date has resulted from the rigorous assessment of the technical, cost and scheduling issues. The decision to move forward with the SLS comes after a wide ranging review of the technical risks, costs, schedules and timing known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C).
As Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who oversaw the review process, said at the briefing:
After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment. Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program. We are making excellent progress on SLS designed for missions beyond low Earth orbit. We owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right.
The SLS involved in the test flight will be configured to its 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version. By comparison, the Saturn V — which took NASA astronauts to the Moon — had a max Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) payload capacity of 118 metric tons, but it has long since been retired. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which is a much smaller and cheaper rocket than the SLS, will be able to put 55 metric tons into LEO.
With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, there aren’t really any heavy lift launchers in operation. Ariane 5, produced by commercial spacecraft manufacturer Arianespace, can only do 21 metric tons to LEO, while the Delta IV (United Launch Alliance) can do 29 metric tons to LEO. In short, NASA’s Space Launch System should be by far the most powerful operational rocket when it arrives in 2017-2018.
SpaceX could decide to scale-up the Falcon Heavy, but the rocket’s main purpose is to compete with United Launch Alliance and Arianespace, which currently own the incredibly lucrative heavy lift market. A payload capacity of 55 tons is more than enough for that purpose. A capacity of 150 tons is only for rockets that are intended to aim at targets that are much farther than geostationary orbit — such as the Moon, Mars or Europa.
The SLS’s primary payload will be the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), though it will undoubtedly be used to send other large spacecraft into deep space. The Orion capsule is what NASA will use to land astronauts on the Moon, captured asteroids, Mars, and any other manned missions throughout the Solar System. The first manned Orion launch, to a captured asteroid in lunar orbit, is scheduled to occur in 2021.
Combined with SpaceX’s crewed Dragon spacecraft, Boeing’s CST-100, and a slew of crowd-funded projects to place boots on Mars and Europa in the next few decades, things are looking up for human space exploration!