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Progress continues with NASA's Space Launch System

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Jun 26, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—The core stage of NASA's next big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), is proceeding from concept to blueprint design stage.  

The Space Launch System is being designed for both cargo and manned missions beyond Earth's orbit, to the Moon, asteroids and eventually to Mars. The launch vehicle will carry the Orion spacecraft that could carry astronauts to the Moon and Mars, as well as other payloads.

NASA, along with the core stage prime contractor Boeing, presented a full set of requirements to technical reviewers and an independent review board. Following the review the core stage of the rocket will proceed to the design phase.

The core stage of the launch vehicle will measure 200 feet (61 metres) by 27.5 feet (8.4 metres) and will contain liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to feed the rocket's RS-25 engines. The launcher will also be powered by two solid rocket boosters. RS-25 engines from the retired Space Shuttle fleet will be used for the first flew flights. 

The SLS is being designed with two configurations, one that can lift 70 metric tons and a larger configuration with a second stage that will be capable of lifting 130 metric tons.

The first test flight of the Space Launch System, which will consist of the smaller 70 metric ton configuration, is scheduled for 2017 - 50 years after the first flight of the Saturn V moon rocket.

NASA plan to evolve the SLS from the initial configuration to a second stage rocket that can lift 130 metric tons. Its lift capacity and - at 384 feet tall - its height exceed the capabilities and size of the Dr Wernher von Braun designed Saturn V rocket that took the Apollo craft to the Moon. The Saturn V rocket stood 363 feet tall (110 metres) and could lift 120 metric tons to Low Earth Orbit.

Artist's impression of the SLS with the core stage highlighted. Credit: NASA

William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration Operations Mission Directorate at NASA said: "The SLS will power a new generation of exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit and the moon, pushing the frontiers of discovery forward. The innovations being made now, and the hardware being delivered and tested, are all testaments to the ability of the U.S. aerospace workforce to make the dream of deeper solar system exploration by humans a reality in our lifetimes."

As well as the design of the core stage, other parts of the SLS launcher are making progress. The J-2X upper-stage rocket engine, being developed by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne for the future second stage, is being tested at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The prime contractor for the solid rocket boosters, ATK, has begun processing its first SLS hardware components in preparation for an initial qualification test in 2013.

The two configurations for the Space Launch System. Credit: NASA

Boeing, the prime contractor for the core stage, is also contracted to provide the computer hardware for the launch and flight software. As reported by Sen, the hardware was recently delivered to NASA.

Others developing 'heavy' launch vehicles include SpaceX and China. SpaceX, whose Dragon spacecraft recently had a successful mission to the International Space Station, is developing the Falcon Heavy, designed to lift 53 metric tons to Low Earth Orbit. SpaceX has already received a payload order for launch aboard what will be its largest rocket.

China, whose Long March 2F rocket recently launched its Shenzhou 9 spacecraft that docked successfully with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab, is also designing a heavy rocket launcher for deep space missions.

With developments by governments and companies, by the first SLS test flight in 2017 there are likely to be other heavy rocket launchers close to market as a new era for the big launcher takes shape. It will also be half a century since the first flight of von Braun's Saturn V, an achievement which looks ever more remarkable given the state of computer technology in the 1960s.