NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) program has received the green light to progress after the completion of a critical design review. The next generation heavy launch system, which is designed to lift the Orion spacecraft for manned missions into deep space, is NASA’s most ambitious project since the 1960s and the most powerful rocket ever built, with 12 percent more thrust than the Saturn V booster used to send the Apollo missions to the Moon.
Scheduled to fly its first mission with an operational Orion spacecraft in December 2017, the SLS is currently undergoing a series of reviews in anticipation of final construction. As part of this process, Wednesday’s announcement moved the rocket from formulation to development, which the space agency says is the first for a NASA exploration-class space vehicle since the Space Shuttle.
Although the SLS will provide a lift capability of 130 tonnes (143 tons) in its most powerful configuration, for its first flight test it will be configured with a 70 tonne (77 ton) lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit. The review, known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), provides a development cost baseline for the 70-tonne version of US$7.021 billion from February 2014 through the first launch and a launch readiness schedule based on an initial SLS flight no later than November 2018.
As development progresses, SLS, its Orion manned space capsule, and the Ground Systems Development and Operations programs will continue to receive design reviews to make sure technical and cost factors are met.
"The Space Launch System Program has done exemplary work during the past three years to get us to this point," says William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We will keep the teams working toward a more ambitious readiness date, but will be ready no later than November 2018.”