article image

NASA's next-generation rocket enters new design phase

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Jun 24, 2013, 7:00 UTC

Sen— NASA's next generation rocket, which the agency hopes will launch its Orion crewship to asteroids and Mars, is entering its preliminary design phase -- the portion of a spacecraft's development where ideas are firmed up for construction.

The rocket, called Space Launch System (SLS), is scheduled to launch for the first time in 2017. The agency has embraced a "flexible destination" approach with this system - as well as an asteroid it could also transport astronauts to Mars in the coming years.

That aim, however, depends heavily on how NASA's budget performs in the coming years. Critics have said that this year's budget will be a bellwether for the agency's hopes to send humans to the Red Planet in a reasonable time.

The SLS project began after President Obama took office in 2008. The agency had previously committed money and resources for the now cancelled Constellation program that was intended to return humans to the Moon and to Mars.

In lieu of that, NASA is now working on a rocket that could transport humans to multiple types of destinations, including asteroids or Mars, but the agency is yet to commit to any specific destination.

That said, when NASA announced its new class of astronauts last week, the agency touted the group as the first in a generation that will explore Earth beyond an orbit hugging the planet. The SLS will be a crucial piece of that goal, added the agency in a statement concerning the preliminary design review.

"This phase of development allows us to take a critical look at every design element to ensure it's capable of carrying humans to places we've never been before," stated Dan Dumbacher, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development.

"This is the rocket that will send humans to an asteroid and Mars, so we want to be sure we get its development right."

Fiscal year 2014 will be a crucial one for the agency in determining the next deep space destination. NASA recently introduced a plan to capture and bring an asteroid to a safe area near Earth, potentially for humans to explore, but the budget draft currently being considered has eliminated that option.

Last week, a past Lockheed Martin senior official told Congress' subcommittee on space that NASA will never get to Mars on the current budget it has.

"Today, there is a human spaceflight program, but no credible human space exploration strategy," added Thomas Young, former executive vice-president of the company, in a prepared statement. "There is much discussion about going to the moon, an asteroid, Phobos, Deimos and Mars; however, there is no credible plan or budget."

As for SLS, the agency and its private-sector constructors will spend several weeks reviewing the information for the preliminary design review. The process is expected to finish at some point this summer.