NASA announces world’s biggest-ever rocket to take man to Mars and beyond


September 15, 2011

The Space Launch System (SLS) is designed to expand man's reach in the solar system (Image: NASA)

The Space Launch System (SLS) is designed to expand man's reach in the solar system (Image: NASA)

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With the curtain coming down on the Space Shuttle Program, NASA has set its sights on the future with the announcement of a heavy-lift launch vehicle that is designed to take man beyond the moon to explore near-Earth asteroids, Mars and its moons, and beyond. Dubbed the Space Launch System (SLS) its configuration harks back to the Saturn V rocket-based systems employed to propel Apollo astronauts to the moon but also incorporates technology developed in the Shuttle Program.

The SLS will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system, which will include the RS-25D/E from the Space Shuttle Program for the core stage and the Saturn V-derived J-2X rocket engine for the upper stage. However, initial development flights will also use solid rocket boosters. The SLS will have an initial lift capacity of 70 metric tons (154,324 lbs), which NASA points out is roughly the weight of 40 SUVs. An evolved SLS will then see lift capacity increased to 130 metric tons (286,600 lbs), which by NASA's logic would be roughly the weight of 75 SUVs.

The initial SLS will weigh 2,500 metric tons (5.5 million pounds) and stand taller than the Statue of Liberty, at 97.5 m (320 ft) high. At liftoff it will generate 8.4 million pounds of thrust, which is 10 percent more than the Saturn V. The subsequent evolved SLS will weigh 2,950 metric tons (6.5 million pounds) and stand 122 m (400 ft) high. At liftoff it will generate 9.2 million pounds of thrust, which is 20 percent more than the Saturn V at liftoff.

NASA says the SLS's architecture provides a launch vehicle that can be adapted to suit different missions through the use of different core stage, upper stage, and first-stage booster combinations. This flexibility is designed to allow it to more economically carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, as well as cargo, equipment and science experiments to as low as Earth's orbit and as far as Mars and beyond. While NASA is looking to save money by having private companies ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), the SLS will also serve as a backup for commercial and international partner transportation services to the ISS.

The SLS was unveiled by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and several members of Congress on Wednesday, with Bolden saying, "President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that's exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow's explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars."

Dreaming big is fine, but with an estimated cost of US$18 billion just for the next five years and the U.S. Government constantly modifying NASA's budget, it remains to be seen whether NASA will be able to make its dream reality. NASA stresses that the SLS architecture benefits from significantly reduced development and operations costs as it leverages existing capabilities resulting from the Space Shuttle and Constellation Programs. NASA says the early developmental flights may take advantage of existing solid boosters and other existing hardware, while a competition will be held to develop the boosters.

"NASA has been making steady progress toward realizing the president's goal of deep space exploration, while doing so in a more affordable way," NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said. "We have been driving down the costs on the Space Launch System and Orion contracts by adopting new ways of doing business and project hundreds of millions of dollars of savings each year."

The first SLS unmanned developmental flight is targeted for the end of 2017 with the first manned flight penciled in for 2021. NASA then aims to follow up with a manned mission to a nearby asteroid around 2025 and one to Mars in the 2030s.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

It\'s beyond bullshit that 18 billion over five years is politically controversial. That is nothing as far as government spending goes.

Charles Gaines

This will create jobs as well as push science. Better that than another useless stimulus package.


First he cancels the constellation program which was years into progress saying that going to the moon and beyond is not in the budget. He wastes all that time and money and then starts this?? Really? liquid hydrogen? that was the main flaw with the space shuttle. Liquid rockets have some value, but solid fuel is definitely the way to go. He wastes 10\'s of billions of dollars and a decade of progress. saying it was behind schedule and over budget. Then he creates a new program that cost 10x as much and will take 10 years longer??? WHY oh WHY.

Its like going to a restaurant. Paying for your food, get annoyed its taking too long, walk out, then walk right back in stand in line order food, pay extra money for it and tell them to wait a bit before they make it.

Michael Mantion

America has better things to spend its money on like fixing our infastructure.


They would save a bunch of money if they lifted 40 small sedans instead.

No need to thank me, America.

Gabe Ets-Hokin

Charles is right - all US government spending adds up to a billion in spending every 2 hours. However when it comes to knowledge I would like to know: Why do we know far more about space than we know about the oceans? We live here and not in space so why couldn\'t we clean up our planet home before cluttering up more space with junk? All the problems on earth are getting worse so how is space travel going to help? Is this showing the world that hunger, jobs, health care for all etc.... are of no concern? To illustrate - could I fix up my home by leaving it and moving elsewhere? Will man be allowed to escape from his responsibilities and care for his home planet?


This is nothing but a political smokescreen by Obama to cover the fact that he has spent all of NASA\'s money and does not want it to be another black mark against him in the 2012 election....NASA has become just another bloated obsolete Govt. bureaucracy / labor union and needs to be completely redirected as a non-union entity..


I believe it is true that accelerating the entire rocket assembly on an appropriate launch trajectory improves the energy efficiency of launch significantly. Is anyone out there interested enough to calculate how much more efficient the launch would be if the entire rocket was accelerated to say 400 km per hour, and released at 8000 feet, pointed in the right direction, prior to firing the rockets? I think it is true that by putting a \"zeroth\" stage under the rocket based on high speed electric train technology taKING IT UP TO 300-500 km/hour and the correct trajectorty, that the mass delivered to orbit would increase greatly.


\"Better that than another useless stimulus package. \"

Government spending that creates jobs IS a stimulus package.

This approach still seems like a step backwards from the shuttle program.


A much better spend than the spend on infrastructure. A paved road does nothing to make us competitive with the Chinese, who are our economic enemy. The USA needs to put an end to any stimulus that cannot show a return on investment in terms of revenue or in terms of tech superiority over China and India. This heavy lifter\'s components also allow the US to lob a \"big one\" at China - a threat that will keep that military dog muzzled.


Sending a man to Mars with rocket tech is moronic. I have no problem with people going to Mars if the pollution required to get them there would be less than the pollution those folks cause here on Earth. There is no secret on Mars that could justify that much pollution.

Gabe Ets-Hokin - This delivery system will primarily put satellites in orbit. Most of those satellites will be for understanding things like the atmosphere and ocean or communicating that information faster and farther. If NASA explores an asteroid now and then I think it\'s a forgivable expense.

Here\'s a little perspective. In 2008 Wall Street paid out $14 billion in bonuses and used taxpayer money to do it. That\'s only $4 billion less than the 5 year budget you\'re taking issue with.

Science deserves a place in our world no matter how damaged the world is. There are other sources to tap for preserving the earth and people on it than the guys who put the global measurement systems in orbit.

Timothy Rohde

space elevator. big cost now , economical there after, huge global profits.


At want to put the equivalent of a 300,000 pound bomb on a sled and accelerate it?

There a company that planned to do something similar but for some reason it fell through. The Jules Verne Gun Company had plans for two sites. One in Alaska, and on in Australia. 7700 pounds into low earth orbit. Sounded like a winner.


This is what some people wanted to build from the beginning of the Shuttle program. Take an external tank, two solid boosters and mount the Shuttle main engines under the tank.

The rocket could lift a payload the same mass as a fully loaded Shuttle. Loft a low orbit space station with interior space that would make the ISS look like a closet, and do it in ONE launch. All the mass of the wings and other parts not needed, because the station wouldn\'t be coming back down, would go into making usable space for the station.

Do the system right and the empty fuel tank could go into orbit too for gigantic expansion room for the station. Vent any leftover hydrogen to space and use any leftover oxygen to replenish station air.

Gregg Eshelman

This is a stupid design and you all know it. What is the value of rushing to get into orbit on a slowly exploding bomb instead of a more efficient first stage as a plane???? The answer is the rocket scientists aren\'t ready to change the game. A reuseable very very large scale plane that can be reused every week. Seriously, look at the waste.


You would have to question the wisdom in re inventing the wheel to deliver payloads to Mars and beyond.

Surely if serious they must consider some other form of propulsion to create the SI needed to reduce flight times.

Agree with comments re political smokescreen to placate the masses.


I am kind of, mmm not looking forward to it, as waste annoys me badly, but I\'d like to watch a video of this getting smacked through the tanks by a brick sized lump of metal space junk at 5 zillion meters per second.

Or to see it actually getting launched - from a closer than usual distance...

But it would be interesting to see it rise 10 meters above the launch pad and then come back down - hell of a bang with that much hydrogen and oxygen going \"POW\" in the one location.

Anyway - wake me up when we get there.

Mr Stiffy

From an engineering standpoint Mount Kenya would be just about the optimal launch point. (14000+ft and on the equator)

Under So\'dammed Hussein Iraq was building a very large but essentially conventional gun that would accelerate a 2,000 projectile kg better than 2/3s the way to orbit, so you would only need a second stage buster that could be a scramjet.

I prefer a railroad system that will give the lower acceleration that humans can survive, and it can also accelerate winged reentry vehicles.


The SpaceX Falcon Heavy will be flying in a couple years with over 2/3s the SLS payload. If SLS ever reaches production, I\'ll bet you would be able to buy two Falcon Heavy launches for the price of a single SLS flight.


Hydrogen is good, no pollution. Bravo.

Vladimir Popov

I am expecting the death of NASA in 16 months

Stewart Mitchell

Re; foghorn - September 15, 2011 @ 01:16 pm PDT

Unless you have a reactionless thruster hidden away rockets are the only way to send a man to Mars.

ps. Ion engines are in fact rockets.


What i don\'t understand is how a Mars module that lands on Mars is suppose to break orbit and meet up with another module orbiting Mars? Wouldn\'t the size of the propulsion system need to be very HUGE?

Darryl Leong

Pretty funny seeing this right below the article in the Gizmag feed about NASA not knowing where that big junk satellite is going to come down.

Is this just like those fancy concept cars that never get built- they\'re just for show?

So, this monster will take  somebody to Mars- how do they get back?

Shouldn\'t we go to Phobos or Deimos first?

How long has it been since we went to Earth\'s moon?

Bigger is not better- logically speaking it would be better to build a base on Earth\'s moon and launch from there.

There are many profitable ventures that could sustain a colony.

Telecommunications&satellite launching,perfect vacuum for specialized lenses and a safe environment for numerous research pursuits to start.

Read the excellent book,\"Welcome to Moonbase!\" by Omni\'s editor Ben Bova for more consideration of this matter.

A very unique book, written in a very unique format.


When are we gonna ditch the WW2 lifting platform tech and start using space planes? Typical governmental thinking.....spend WAY more on old tech rather than develop something newer and cheaper....soooo soooo we gotta wait another 20 years. It IS a waste of money (regardless of whether its just a drop in the ocean of american debt), when that money should have been spent elsewhere on TWENTY FIRST CENTURY TECH....not just tweaked up 1930\'s technology (which is all this basically is....with a few late 20th century bells and whistles)......come ON NASA.....its 2011!!!! NOT 1971!!!!!!! Why are our people STILL going to space on top of a barely controlled chemical explosion......this is a GARGANTUAN EPIC FAIL

Vincent Najger

Re; Darryl Leong - September 16, 2011 @ 09:14 am PDT

Luna equatorial surface gravity 1.622 m/s2 (0.165 4 g) Luna Escape velocity 2.38 km/s Mars equatorial surface gravity 3.711 m/s2 (0.376 g) Mars Escape velocity 5.027 km/s Equatorial surface gravity 9.780327 m/s2 (0.99732 g) Earth Escape velocity 11.186 km/s[3]

These numbers do not tell the whole story, do to mars' very thin atmosphere you can start on achieving orbital velocity significantly earlier than on earth. The Redstone booster from the Mercury program would probably serve to orbit a three man landing party, with a fair sized collection of samples.


Let\'s hope NASA don\'t sacrifice the James Webb Telescope to keep what\'s left of Constellation.

Mark Gradwell

Re; Vincent Najger

Unless you are advocating for the use of nuclear engines in the atmosphere, barely controlled chemical explosion are necessary to get into space. Even with a scramjet powered space plane.


It does not take a giant rocket to go to the moon and beyond. we could have used Atlas rockets for all the launches to get to the moon and back. it probably would have been cheaper as well.

The vehicle that takes you to mars is expected to return you to earth.

would you really go all the way to Mars and only look at a couple minor rocks that happen to be orbiting it? The gravity on Phobos and Deimos is so slight that the mothership could make landings while the mars exploration team is doing their work.

Launching from to moon only makes sense if you are exploiting lunar resources. Although being able to set up a bloody big linear accelerator could save a lot of fuel.


This is essentially Saturn V. If Saturn V was not junked (with billions upon billions of nation\'s investment and efforts and dreams just tossed out) but kept flying for those 40 years past at a rate of one or two flights a year US would have had by now: a permanent Moonbase, a self-sustaining lunar colony with decades of habitation and lunar industry, several space stations dwarfing ISS and a vigorous asteroid/Mars exploration program. Instruments Hubble many times over would have been up. All of this would have come for L E S S cost than the unsuccessful Shuttle/ISS program (so called STS - \"Space Transportation System) [by the way observation to this extend made by no one smaller than a former NASA\'s administrator Griffin].

(Instead, we have had Richard Nixon.)

Shuttle was a failure that in every dimension underperformed by about TWO ORDERS of magnitude: it failed to fly once in six days on a regular schedule {it launched in about six months or more irregularly and unpredictably so that even Obama could not SCHEDULE Endeavour\'s last launch to attend - even when he wanted bad as it was commanded by senator\'s Giffords husband Mark Kelly} it failed to cost $100/kg {it cost about $10 000/kg, the most expensive system ever} and it failed its projected 1: 100 000 safety estimate catastrophically { the real numbers are 2 :136 (2 failures with complete loss of crew and vehicle in 136 flights)

Essential part of Shuttle\'s failure were its solid boosters (contrary to the remark by Michael Mantion), directly responsible for Challenger. Von Braun, the designer of Saturn V, was appalled by solid boosters. One big part of Constellation failure and its budget overun were SRB [Solid Rocket Boosters] . It is questionable if Ares V could have ever been build with SRBs (due to uncontrollable pogo effect). Russia\'s Proton rocket is SRB but, contrary to the promises of near absolute reliability they also had a catastrophic failure that nearly exterminated part of Soviet military leadership [back in those happy days] and poisoned the whole area for decades. Once you ignite the solid you cannot stop/throttle it down. It is a simple and \"solid\" solution - at a cost.

Therefore I applaud the audacity to go back to all liquid boosters. [...and after all, there would be a contest of which solution is really better anyway.]

The proposed SLS is the best what NASA can offer leveraging Shuttle and residual Saturn expertise. It makes sense to build upon what they have. The last thing you need is to send you current expertise to another junkyard and repeat Nixon\'s sweeping gesture.

I am also big fan of a rocket plane to orbit, to advanced VASMIR propusion to Mars and to all alternative means you can scramble to get to orbit - and yes, this - chemical rocket technology was new last time in 1930. But, unfortunately, this is what you have now.

Others are building rocket plane (Skylon) but the success is not so straightforward: it may or may not fly and it may or may not deliver on its promises. The same applies to Elon Musk and Falcon Super Heavy.

I wish, instead of SLS, government was subsidizing \"Highway to Mars\" as proposed by Robert Zubrin, using commercial and much more efficient Falcons. But as long as there are senators Bill and Kay Bailey there, any idealistic proposal is just that.

I wish there were Bill and Kay Bailey to fight Richard forty years ago: the dreams of Apollo generation were cynically vomited over.

@Slowburn: \"Reactionless\" and \"thrusters\" ??! In WHAT UNIVERSE do you live? (presumably in one in of those in which elementary Physics does not apply)


Re; @Slowburn: \"Reactionless\" and \"thrusters\" ??! In WHAT UNIVERSE do you live? (presumably in one in of those in which elementary Physics does not apply)

comment nehopsa - September 18, 2011 @ 07:22 pm PDT

You seemed to miss the same point you made with, \"and yes, this - chemical rocket technology was new last time in 1930. But, unfortunately, this is what you have now.\"


Re my Re; nehopsa

Thinking about if you take two mirror image Circular particle accelerators with the actual accelerator magnets both mounted so the particles are accelerated in the same direction, from outside the engine shroud it would might look like a reactionless thruster.

PS. a rocket engine is a thruster.


Sounds like your all spinning your thrusters!


Too bad NASA has only improved the Saturn Vs by 10-20% over the 40 years of the technology. Either it was the best at the time and not much can be improved upon. Or the current NASA engineers are less creative than those that developed the original Saturn V.


Disappointed. Obama told them to go back to the drawing board and dig into new technologies. So their great breakthrough? A really big rocket. Oh the genius......

Re: Slowburn

It does not take a giant rocket to go to the Moon, but it does take a giant rocket to to get heavy and bulky modules to LEO, where a more modern propulsion system can take over. It does not seem economical to use 40 launches to get a 200 t space station into orbit and much of the cost for the ISS seemed to have been launch expenses incurred at $400,000,000 per launch. Until launch infrastructure like rotovators is installed or until someone finds a way to manipulate spacetime, tuned 1930s technology is all there is for launching heavy payloads. Richard Nixon could not beat his enemies in Congress, so he joined them scrapping progress. Ever since, NASA is running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Were NASA to finally find its head, things would most likely move in place, but space development will still need protection from day to day politics, from vocal political activists of various types, and their financiers in the economy. It seems a lot of money is wasted, because every project has to be reapproved every year to get its next (yearly) payment. This is an Ohio-State-Unversity-freshman approach used by a system incapable of planning anything, that lasts longer than 12 months. Needless to say, a flexible (more so than Saturn V) heavy launch system is 40 years overdue (for 70 t to 400 t payload to LEO - Nova class). Just as important are moderm propulsion systems for use in space (VASIMIR?) and thus a stop to sending chemical fuel to orbit just for maintaining the ISS. The purpose for all this? How about developing the Solar System and finally start using off Earth resources (3He, solar power, noble metals?) in place of plundering this poor world. This might create a few jobs here on Earth, too. Of course there always is the alternative of leaving everything for India and China to do. NASA also needs to develop new hardware that can be patented, so that licenses may be sold to commercial companies and to define safety standards for commercial spacecraft. Best of success to all involved in the development of space. KarlT B.Sc., The Ohio State University


\"Best of success to all involved in the development of space\"...ditto


The Saturn V with a NERVA upper stage would lift more to LEO, than SLS. Why develop a new system?

Bert Murray


@LHDev because it is oooollllddd tech, and they are short in nuclear fuel for those engines. because it isn't produced anymore. it was a side-product of the production for nuclear weapons ...

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