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NASA aims for 2018 test launch of new Moon-Mars rocket

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Aug 29, 2014, 4:58 UTC

Sen—NASA is transitioning from design to development of its planned heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, with the aiming of making a debut unmanned test flight in November 2018.

The decision follows a comprehensive Key Decision Point C (KDP-C) review that considered financial, technical and other issues related to the SLS program.

The new target launch date is 11 months later than previous predictions, but falls within NASA’s required 70 per cent confidence level of being met, associate administrator Robert Lightfoot told reporters during a conference call on Wednesday.

“Our nation has embarked on a very ambitious space exploration program and we owe it to the American taxpayers to get this right,” Lightfoot said. 

NASA is developing the SLS rocket and Orion capsule to fly astronauts to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, with the goal of landing a crew on Mars in the 2030s.

Initially, the SLS, which uses four leftover space shuttle main engines and a pair of shuttle-like, five-segment solid rocket boosters, will be designed to carry 70 metric tons into low-Earth orbit. Future versions will scale up to carry 130 metric tons.

The KDP-C also set the money clock ticking, with an estimated $7.021 billion to be spent on SLS development between February 2014 and first flight. That figure does not include launch pad and ground operations development expenses, or Orion program costs.

The capsule, meanwhile, is due to take a test flight in December aboard an unmanned Delta 4 rocket.

"We are keeping each part of the program—the rocket, ground systems, and Orion—moving at its best possible speed toward the first integrated test launch,” NASA’s Bill Hill, director of Exploration Systems Development, said in a statement.  "We are … making progress in all three programs every day."

The SLS rocket is a modified version of the heavy-lift Ares booster designed under NASA’s previous exploration initiative known as Constellation. The U.S. space agency spent about $9 billion on Constellation, which included the Orion capsule, between 2005 and 2010, before President Obama axed the program. Its goal was to return astronauts to the surface of the moon by 2020. 

Instead, the White House and Congress approved a flexible path toward Mars and includes a visit to an asteroid that will be robotically relocated into a high lunar orbit.

The rocket’s unmanned debut flight will be test run around the Moon. Its second mission in 2021 would send an Orion capsule with a two-person crew to a captured asteroid in lunar orbit. The eventual goal is to fly to Mars.

 “We’re firmly committed to building the launch vehicle and other supporting systems that will take us on that journey," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.