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Monday, September 19, 2011

NASA unveils new Space Launch System design

Here's a first peek at NASA's new Very Heavy Lift rockets for manned missions to the Moon, Mars and asteroid belt.

Yes, it looks like a Saturn V with space shuttle solid boosters duct-taped to the sides. And in some sense, that's kind of what it is. But NASA was given the mandate of developing a moon and Mars -ready spacecraft, on the cheap, on the quick, and using off-the-shelf parts from the space shuttles, and the Orion/Constellation projects. The solution is an interesting one, and it isn't horrible.

I'll be posting much more about the SLS here as more information becomes available.


NASA-- The SLS rocket will incorporate technological investments from the Space Shuttle Program and the Constellation Program in order to take advantage of proven hardware and cutting-edge tooling and manufacturing technology that will significantly reduce development and operations costs. It 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 J-2X engine for the upper stage. SLS will also use solid rocket boosters for the initial development flights, while follow-on boosters will be competed based on performance requirements and affordability considerations. The SLS will have an initial lift capacity of 70 metric tons. That's more than 154,000 pounds, or 77 tons, roughly the weight of 40 sport utility vehicles. The lift capacity will be evolvable to 130 metric tons -- more than 286,000 pounds, or 143 tons -- enough to lift 75 SUVs. The first developmental flight, or mission, is targeted for the end of 2017.

This specific architecture was selected, largely because it utilizes an evolvable development approach, which allows NASA to address high-cost development activities early on in the program and take advantage of higher buying power before inflation erodes the available funding of a fixed budget. This architecture also enables NASA to leverage existing capabilities and lower development costs by using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for both the core and upper stages. Additionally, this architecture provides a modular launch vehicle that can be configured for specific mission needs using a variation of common elements. NASA may not need to lift 130 metric tons for each mission and the flexibility of this modular architecture allows the agency to use different core stage, upper stage, and first-stage booster combinations to achieve the most efficient launch vehicle for the desired mission.


  1. It isn't a horrible solution. Given what congress gave us to work with, it's difficult to envision a better one. But if we'd simply been allowed to complete Constellation, it would have been a better platform for less cost and flight-ready years sooner.

    Manned space flight is simply too big of a project to exist at the mercy of two-year election and budgetary cycles.

  2. I agree with you on all counts. I wasn't a big fan of Constellation. Not because it was a bad platform; it was actually quite good. My issue was with NASA basically reinventing Apollo 50 years after they'd already invented one of those.

    In my mind, the role of NASA should be to innovate, and the role of the commercial space industry should be to replicate those innovations on a larger scale.

    I think that's happening, it just isn't happening as quickly as I might have hoped.

    So for the moment NASA is back in the business of building Apollo rockets, by any other name, because the private sector isn't ready to pick up that ball yet, and we need to be able to get to the moon and Mars. Oh, and it would be kinda cool if we could fly our own astronauts to the International Space Station.

    SLS has "developed by committee" written all over it. Constellation was a more elegant design and a better system. But congress defunded Constellation, and then figured out that we actually needed one of those. So, here we go. SLS will get the job done. It's appalling to me that NASA is being asked to accomplish the greatest journey ever attempted by humankind with a vessel cobbled together out of spare parts. But that's kind of where we are as a country right now.