According to a Wednesday story in the Los Angeles Times, NASA’s next generation heavy lift rocket, dubbed the Space Launch System, has passed a critical design review. Hence the space agency has awarded Boeing a $2.8 billion contract to begin full production of the rocket. The first generation of the SLS will be capable of lofting 70 tons to low Earth orbit. Eventually the heavy lift rocket will be capable of lifting 130 tons to LEO.
The Space Launch System was born out of the ashes of President George W. Bush’s Constellation program which would have returned Americans to the moon by 2019 but was abruptly cancelled by President Barack Obama. NASA’s initial plan was to conduct a technology research and development program that would have, in the fullness of time, led to a new, high tech heavy lift rocket. Believing that the plan was a bureaucratic dodge to defer building a heavy lift rocket and hence space exploration beyond low Earth orbit indefinitely, Congress insisted that NASA build a heavy lifter with current technology.
While many of the components of the SLS are derived from legacy components from the shuttle and even Saturn V, they will be manufactured with modern materials and techniques, including additive manufacturing better known as 3D printing. Thus the heavy lift rocket will have a high tech, 21st Century cast to it. It is expected to by the main workhorse for NASA’s space exploration program for the next several decades.
The first launch of the Space Launch System is scheduled to occur in 2017 when it will take an uncrewed version of the Orion spacecraft in a loop around the moon. The next scheduled mission is scheduled for 2021 when it will take a crew to lunar orbit where it will meet a small asteroid that will be previously positioned by a robot probe. Eventually the SLS will serve as the basis of the first human missions to Mars.
The heavy lift rocket has been criticized as being so unaffordable that it can only be launched every other year, which would create safety problems because launch crews would not be able to remain sharp due to a low launch tempo. If NASA were to get more funding, the Space Launch System would be used for more missions, from a return to the moon to sending heavy robotic explorers to the Outer Planets and other destinations.