NASA Announces Design Of Deep Space Rocket
The heavy-lift rocket, known as the Space Launch System (SLS), would be America's most powerful since the Saturn V that carried Apollo astronauts to the moon, the agency said.
It would carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), a manned capsule already in development. Although the government-owned rocket and capsule are designed for missions beyond low-Earth orbit and ultimately to Mars, they would also serve as a backup for foreign partner and U.S. commercial vehicles to the International Space Station.
"This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world," said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden at a press conference with members of Congress, including Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Bill Nelson (D-FL), whom many consider played key roles in crafting legislation related to the rocket.
The SLS and MPCV---a follow-on system to the space shuttle-- are part of a plan outlined in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that Congress and the Obama administration finally agreed to nearly a year ago. The law tasks NASA to have by 2016's end at least a version of the rocket-capsule system that could reach the space station and other places in low-Earth orbit.
The estimated five-year cost is $10 billion for the rocket and $6 billion for the capsule, with an initial unmanned test flight targeted for the end of 2017, officials said.
Initially, the rocket would have a lift capacity of 70-100 metric tons and stand roughly 300 feet--taller than the Statue of Liberty. A later version would be 400 feet and able to lift 130 metric tons. Some shuttle and other existing technologies are incorporated into the design, but final procurement details would be determined later, after a competition is held to develop the rocket boosters based on performance requirements.
"This is the biggest thing for space exploration in decades,” said Nelson, chairman of the Subcommittee on Science and Space.
Due to the shuttle's retirement in July and no U.S. commercial alternatives yet available, NASA presently relies solely on the Russians to ferry astronauts to and from the space station.
In recent months, growing fears of no replacement for the shuttle-- and the jobs and global prestige associated with it-- had led congressional members to repeatedly inquire about the SLS. NASA repeatedly responded that a formal design decision was not ready. Hutchison and other apparently frustrated senators from the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee then in July issued a subpoena for the internal SLS documents. In August, the Russians' failure to properly launch an unmanned cargo spacecraft further escalated political (and other) concerns about NASA's near- and long-term access to the space station.
"It is our sincere hope that today’s announcement signals a breakthrough with this President that will help alleviate the uncertainty that has plagued our aerospace industrial base and wreaked havoc on its employees,” said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology; Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics; and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, in a joint statement. “We will not judge today’s announcement by the Administration’s words, but by their deeds and actions in the coming months and years.”
The rocket's specific architecture was selected largely because it utilizes an evolvable development approach, which allows more flexibility in addressing costs and different mission needs, the agency said.
NASA plans to primarily use commercial vehicles for cargo and crew access to the space station in the coming years so that the agency could focus on developing the SLS and MPCV for farther missions.