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NASA Unveils Plans for Super Rocket to Launch Explorers on Deep Space Missions


Two views of NASA's Space Launch System, a super rocket for the human exploration of deep space. Image Credit/NASA

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, flanked by a bi-partisan gathering of Washington lawmakers, unveiled the agency’s heavy lift rocket strategy on Wednesday, a monstrous spacecraft that will eventually eclipse the legendary Saturn V and propel future explorers on missions to asteroids and eventually Mars.

The proposed Space Launch System could make its first test flight in 2017.

The space agency plans to invest $18 billion over the next six years for an early version of the SLS, a crew capsule and launch site upgrades that could deliver a 70 metric ton payload to Earth orbit, or about 154,000 pounds. The ultimate version of the SLS would tower 40 feet over the Saturn V launcher that carried the Apollo astronauts to the moon, and deliver 130 metric tons, or nearly 290,000 pounds of piloted spacecraft and hardware to orbit.

“NASA has selected the designer of its new deep space system that will take American astronaut further in space than any nation has gone before,” said Bolden. “The SLS will be the cornerstone of our human deep space human exploration program. President Obama has challenged us at NASA to be bold and dream big. That’s exactly what we will do.”

Wednesday’s announcement settled a skirmish between Congress and the White House over cost estimates that  had its roots in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, legislation that laid out plans to replace the space shuttle with a new NASA rocket and spacecraft for human missions beyond low Earth orbit. The strategy includes NASA’s fostering of commercial space transportation services to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The operating life of the orbiting lab is extended to at least 2020 as well.

The new strategy provides $10 billion for work on the SLS at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center; $6 billion for work on the Orion/Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle at the Johnson Space Center; and $2 billion for upgrades to the launch facilities at the Kennedy Space Center.  Work is already under way on the four-person Orion/MPCV which emerged from NASA’s Constellation moon program, which was cancelled because of cost concerns early last year.

The SLS will be comprised of a long core stage that is similar in appearance to the shuttle’s external fuel tank. It will be equipped with five space shuttle main engines. Two elongated solid rocket boosters of the kind used by the shuttle will be joined to the side of the SLS. The second stage will be fashioned from the J2-X engine, an upgraded version of a Saturn V propulsion stage. The J-2X is another Constellation survivor.

The strategy of sizing the SLS to the shuttle fuel tank and using shuttle propulsion will enable NASA to hold down costs by using production tooling as well as buildings and some of the launch pad hardware already in place at Kennedy.

However, NASA intends to give the SLS added punch by holding a new competition for the “strap on” boosters. The competition will permit the makers of solid and liquid rockets to develop the systems that will increase the SLS performance to 130 metric tons of payload.

In remarks last year, Obama asked NASA to push toward a human mission to an asteroid by 2025, the Martian environs a decade later and eventually a mission onto the surface of the Red Planet.

While specific destinations and timelines have not been settled, NASA will likely lead an international effort building off of its space station partnerships to reach a range of new deep space destinations. Missions to lunar Lagrange points and  geostationary orbit may provide early milestone destinations.

“We worked as hard as we could to get this out as soon as we could,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations. “This is a monumental decision for the government to go do. We wanted to make sure   we got it right, brief everyone with some independent cost estimates to make sure we have a flexible and sustainable program we can go forward with.”

The cost issue, which led to Constellation’s demise, was examined closely by the White House Office of Science and Technology and the Office of Management and Budget.

“Having settled on a new and powerful heavy-lift launch architecture, NASA can now move ahead with building that rocket and the next-generation vehicles and technologies needed for an ambitious program of crewed missions in deep space,” said John P. Holdren, Obama’s assistant for Science and Technology in a statement.

The strategy received also received a legislative boost from key members of both political parties.

The Senate Appropriations Committee subcommittee responsible for NASA oversight was prepared to mark up the agency’s spending bill for 2012, following the long anticipated announcement.

“I see a very strong bipartisan support of NASA and its key role,” saidU. S.Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican who sits on both NASA’s Senate authorization panel and appropriations subcommittee.  “Even some of the strongest budget cutters on my side of the aisle — who have put forward massive cuts — did not cut the core mission of NASA. They see that as part of the American spirit and most certainly part of the American economy andAmerica’s national security. We cannot afford to be in second place.”

 “This is perhaps the biggest thing for space exploration in decades,” saidU. S.Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, who chairs the Senate Science and Space Subcommittee. “The goal is to fly humans safely beyond low-Earth orbit and deep into outer space, where we can not only survive, but one day also live.”




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