Nearly 3 years ago, NASA announced the development of its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, a mammoth space vehicle that harkens back to the 350+ foot tall Saturn Vs used to launch astronauts to the Moon during the Apollo years. At the time, NASA announced a timetable for development but many people were wary, citing delays and cost over-runs of the now-dead Aries rocket, which was of similar specifications.
Good news: according to NASA, the SLS is on schedule. These are piping for the ultra-cold fuel as well as the booster and core stage rocket engines.
If that weren't enough, the Orion space capsule (saved from President Bush's now-defunct Constellation Program), will be making its first test flight by the end of the year, traveling some 3,600 miles from Earth, which is about 15 times more distant than the International Space Station but still nowhere near as far as the Apollo astronauts traveled in their roughly 240,000 mile trip to the Moon. During re-entry, Orion will be subjected to temperatures of over 4,000 degrees at speeds upwards of 20,000mph.
Needless to say, scientists will be keeping a very close eye on how the unmanned capsule performs in real life operating conditions.
In the press conference that unveiled the rocket, NASA chief Charles Bolden declared that “the next chapter of America's space exploration story is being written today” and that “President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that's exactly what we are doing.” For NASA, the SLS will be the vehicle that will take America far deeper into space than any nation has ever gone before, namely to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by the mid 2030s.
When it comes to technology, the SLS will be a combination of old and new to both take advantages of new technological capabilities and of existing knowledge and hardware mastered through decades of manned spaceflight. While recycled technology will come from the Space Shuttle and Constellation's Aries V rocket, the SLS is no hodgepodge of old parts as it incorporates much new technology, especially in the rocket's core stages.
If all goes according to plan, the first test flight will come in 2017, with the first manned flight in 2021.
For America, this cannot come soon enough as we are being faced with an increasingly belligerent Russia, upon whom we now depend on for rides into space.
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