Two months after the final flight of Space Shuttle, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration finally has a plan to replace the troubled winged spacecraft, two of which crashed, killing a total of 14 astronauts. On Sept. 14, NASA boss Charles Bolden unveiled the design of the agency’s Space Launch System, a new heavy rocket slated for a 2017 debut.
If it survives the current lean budget years, SLS will not only maintain the United States’ heavy space-exploration capability – it could give Washington a military edge over Moscow and Beijing.
The SLS design borrows elements from the Space Shuttle, including the Shuttle’s main engines. The SLS will have five main engines compared with the Space Shuttle’s three. The basic SLS will have a maximum payload of around 70 tons to Low Earth Orbit, compared with 26 tons for the Space Shuttle and 25 tons for the Delta IV Heavy, currently the United States’ most powerful rocket. A planned larger version of the SLS could loft 130 tons. The Russian Proton and the Chinese Long March carry around 21 tons and 14 tons, respectively.
Combined with the Orion passenger capsule under development by Lockheed Martin at a cost of around $8 billion, the $18 billion SLS will give the US a way to boost astronauts into orbit – a mission for which Washington currently relies on rented Russian capsules and rockets. One of Russia’s robotic Soyuz capsules carrying supplies to the International Space Station crashed during launch last month, underscoring the need for a new US system.
Initially, SLS and Orion will handle personnel and supply runs to the International Space Station. Later, the rocket-and-capsule combo could undertake missions deeper into space, possibly even to Mars. The Obama Administration wants NASA to launch a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid no later than 2025, and Mars after that.
Equally important, though unmentioned by Bolden and other government officials, SLS could sustain and expand the United States’ ability to loft large spy satellites into orbit – a task currently handled mostly by the Delta IV Heavy. In January, a Delta IV Heavy boosted into orbit a 23-story satellite belonging to the National Reconnaissance Office. The spacecraft, reportedly an electro-optical Keyhole spy bird, was one of the largest ever launched.
Lately the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies have diversified their space fleets with greater numbers of smaller, cheaper satellites. But these smaller birds haven’t, as yet, fully replaced large spacecraft. Until they do, the United States will need heavy rockets. The SLS, if it reaches operation, will help keep America’s space options open.