NASA unveiled Wednesday the design for the Space Launch System (SLS), a next-generation rocket system that will serve as the centerpiece for deep space exploration for the coming decades.
The rocket would be the most powerful since the Saturn V that took Americans to the moon four decades ago. NASA expects it to propel astronauts on missions farther than anyone has ever traveled, including an asteroid by 2025 and Mars the following decade.
The agency said that SLS will provide the nation with a safe, affordable and sustainable means of reaching beyond our current limits and open up new discoveries from the unique vantage point of space.
"This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that's exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, kids today can now dream of one day walking on Mars."
The SLS rocket will be designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, as well as important cargo, equipment and science experiments to Earth's orbit and beyond. It will also serve as a back up for commercial and international partner transportation services to the International Space Station.
To speed up development and control costs, NASA relied on pieces from the just-retired space shuttles for thew new rocket design (shuttle tiles are going to schools). The first stage would essentially be an elongated shuttle fuel tank, and it would use the same rocket engines. Initial test flights would use strapped on solid rocket boosters--stretched versions of the shuttle boosters--to provide additional thrust.
The first unmanned test flight of the first iteration of the rocket, able to lift 70 metric tons (154,000 pounds) to low-Earth orbit, is targeted for the end of 2017. Future iterations are to be more powerful, capable of lifting up to 130 metric tons (286,000 pounds).
The cost of the program is estimated at $18 billion through an initial test flight in 2017, and about $30 billion through the first piloted mission in 2021.
According to an article in New York Times, it would take roughly $62 billion to fly up to two missions a year and start developing deep-space habitat and other components needed for a mission to an asteroid.