NASA has announced plans for the world's largest and most powerful rocket that would be capable of launching astronauts to asteroids and eventually to Mars.
The space agency wants to build 320-foot Space Launch System aiming to fly humans to nearby asteroids around 2025 and Mars in the 2030s.
Named the Space Launch System (SLS), this spaceship would be NASA's first exploration-class vehicle since the Saturn V, which took American astronauts to the moon 40 years ago. However, researchers claim that even the smallest prototype of SLS will have 10 percent more thrust than its predecessor.
The SLS will be designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, as well as important cargo, equipment and science experiments to Earth's orbit and destinations beyond. The shuttle could carry about 50,000 pounds of cargo into low-Earth orbit. The new rocket will be able to initially lift as much as 140,000 pounds of cargo and power it well beyond low-Earth orbit.
In essence, the rocket will look like an Apollo-era capsule atop the tallest of three giant boosters, much in configuration like the external tank and two boosters that the shuttle rode into space.
We're investing in technologies to live and work in space, and it sets the stage for visiting asteroids and Mars, said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at a news conference in Washington.
Given the federal budget constraint, the budget is not finalized.
SLS's first manned launch from Florida's Kennedy Space Center is scheduled for post-2021 and will cost several billion dollars per year more thereafter.
The design would cost $18 billion and is aimed at a 2017 unmanned test flight of the most powerful rocket since the moon race's Saturn V rockets. It would push behind the moon, to asteroids and even to Mars and would serve as the backbone of the human spaceflight program.
NASA will allocate $3 billion a year to the effort, or a total of about $18 billion over the next six years, said William H. Gerstenmaier, the agency's associate administrator for human exploration.
The 2017 launch date is a hard deadline, regardless of ups and downs in NASA's budget, He added.
We've talked conceptually about multiple destinations, Mr. Gerstenmaier said. We talk about an asteroid in 2025. We talk about Mars being the ultimate destination.
Unlike its previous program, Constellation, which has a very specific set goal - returning to the moon by 2020, NASA is yet to decide goals and destinations for the SLS.
In February 2010, President Obama cancelled the Constellation program and adjourned all decisions on finding a replacement for five years. Later, due to increasing congressional pressure, new plan of reviving the Constellation was announced. Now with the proposal of SLS, White House is showing a genuine effort to renew the space agency's future, believe experts.