NASA's New Deep Space Rocket
Image Credit: NASA

NASA's New Deep Space Rocket


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.

August 15, 2013 at 20:46

The loss of a monkey to mankind would be greater than if u would just lose yourself one-day….chimp man

December 9, 2011 at 19:17

I wouldn’t really say that either of the shuttles “crashed”. That takes a bit away from what actually happened.

September 21, 2011 at 11:57

Really Frank, you truly are a gimp.

Much respect to people like Yangzi and JC for putting across the China view… but all your comments are just ignorant gibberish

September 21, 2011 at 08:27

The Saturn V program was designed to take men to the Moon. A costly undertaking with dubious practical uses, for everyday life and direct military purpose. But if you look at the strategic fallouts that it has generated, in terms of technology (reuse), scientific education, management skills, and last but not least, building a nation’s pride and self-confidence, I think that the end result was positive. Anyway, this type of strategic challenge is better for mankind than money spent in the quest of claiming back “lost” territories.

September 21, 2011 at 08:09

When will you realize that you are fighting against Agent Smith, like Neo in the beginning of the “The Matrix” movies? Agent Smith is a peripheral product of the “Core” to protect itself. If you can’t bypass Agent Smith, you will spend all your energy in endless and useless fights (and we have to spend ours to zap your fights). You can not defeat Agent Smith, Sam, because it looks human, but it is not. Aim at the “core”, Sam.

September 21, 2011 at 07:24

I’ll have to agree with observer that there is no current military application for an SLS type rocket, and the costs are prohibitively high in any case.

I am of a slightly negative opinion on how the program will work out, simply due to how constellation and the shuttle turned out. Overpriced and underperforming for the price.

Space Observer
September 21, 2011 at 03:32

@Nicholas Alan Johnson: Really, that was what you took from my comment? That my “suspicion” over what the author actually meant to say was tons, not stories? That was not even an assumption, it was a guess and I hardly would stand behind it, which should be clear from the context. Furthermore, I cited an actual possibility in mentioning tons, as opposed to a factual impossibility. Ultimately though, I do not know what the author meant to say. It may well of been that a Delta IV Heavy is roughly 23 stories tall. However, that is not my point.

The point is that the article suggests a military dimension to the SLS program that is very unlikely to exist. That is my problem with this article. Oh, and there is a “t” in “not,” if you really want to go there. Otherwise, I like to stick to what’s important (if writing comments on a blog article can ever be called important, that is.) :-)

September 20, 2011 at 15:03

Indians should leave the space works to more competant people.

Currently, there are totally only two Indians ever been to space.

One is dead.

September 20, 2011 at 14:51

You are right.

Loss of a space monkey is also a loss of every one. Including you and me.

Loss of an Indian is a loss of every one too.

Including you and me.

That is one of the reason space shuttle has to be terminated. It is not safe for even a monkey.

September 20, 2011 at 13:08

Well, both interpretations are valid. You do not need to be a “space specialist”. Just Google “Delta IV NRO satellite tons” and “Delta IV storey”. Come on don’t be a lazy engineer.

Nicholas Alan Johnson
September 20, 2011 at 05:15

@Space Observer You clearly do no fit the description of “space specialist” yourself. Assuming the author meant 23 tons is as baseless as the initial assertion that the article makes that the satellite is 23 stories high. Rather, the mistype probably refers to the height of the total rocket; A Delta IV Heavy is over 200 ft, or approx. the height of a 23 story building.

September 20, 2011 at 04:12

“She was burned slowly for several minutes.”
So said Frankie
the stinky Chinky

September 20, 2011 at 02:18

There are plenty of people world wide who mourn her and her fellow astronauts who trained together long hours for the mission, together. Poor Frankie does not understand the difference between dignified debate and hate speech. One of these days it will require him to meet people, Chinese people, in white coats for his own benefit, so he does not hurt himself. Good luck son!

yang zi
September 19, 2011 at 23:43

I don’t understand Frank, if an Indian died on the mission, it is a loss of everyone, including you.

September 19, 2011 at 23:32

Shuttle did not give the Indian a dignified way to return.

She was burned slowly for several minutes.

yang zi
September 19, 2011 at 20:41

why China has to catch up with US on everything? China just need to do what it can, no need to be number one at anything.

yang zi
September 19, 2011 at 20:12

the shuttle program is a failure, it gives astronauts a dignified way to return, but too expensive.

this program makes more sense.

September 19, 2011 at 19:04

China should spend more money on R&D to boost up its rocket technology to ensure that its rocket power is not too far behind that of US. By 2015, China’s Long March V rocket will be ready, that is said to be able to handle up to 25 tons of low-orbit delivery that will be equivalent to what Delta IV has. China has already got Long March VI on the drawing boards, and they need to boost up the delivery capacity to match the US. If not, China will have problems.

Space Observer
September 19, 2011 at 16:21

This article is clearly not written by a space specialist. There is no such thing as a “23 story” satellite (I suspect the author meant “tons”), and the idea of a “military edge” created by the SLS program is fantasy. The SLS will be too expensive to use for launching satellites, particularly given the planned SpaceX development of the Falcon Heavy, which will be able to lift 50 tons to LEO. No one needs 100 ton spy satellites. Independent access to the ISS is valuable, but not for the military, and private space companies will be providing that well before the SLS is operational. That is the NASA plan and well-reported, and unless the military suddenly has an unprecedented actual need for a superheavy-lift rocket (in an age of declining budgets no less), the SLS has zero military significance. It is a rocket for human space exploration, and a fairly humdrum one at that. (After full development it will be a Saturn V + 10 tons to LEO. Oh baby, what an upgrade.)

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