While many think commercialization will be the next step in space exploration's maturation, NASA is hard at work developing a rocket to go well beyond the virtually unknown.
The Space Launch System (SLS), with a planned launch date of 2017, is the administration's next generation of heavy-lifting rocket. The SLS is on target to take a manned Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle to an asteroid by 2021. It's possible, however, the rocket will be capable of so much more. The SLS, with its $10 billion booster, is powerful enough for extreme deep space travel -- such as visiting the moons of Pluto -- and in its fully evolved state should be able to carry 130 metric tons. Sampling-gathering flights through Jupiter's or Saturn's atmospheres would not be out of the question.
It will be NASA's most powerful rocket, surpassing the capability of the Saturn V rockets -- which carried astronauts to the moon during the Apollo missions. It also will be NASA's first exploration-class vehicle since the Saturn V more than 40 years ago.
"This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued US 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, tomorrow's explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars."
Boeing is developing the SLS core stage, including its avionics. Towering over 200 feet tall with a diameter of 27.5 feet, the core will store cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to feed the SLS's RS-25 engines.
The pure size and power of the SLS will make it viable for not only deep space exploration, but also delivering needed cargo and equipment into space -- including possibly to the much-hyped Bigelow Aerospace space station. Stephen Creech, SLS strategic development manager for NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, recently told SPACE.com the space agency has spoken to Bigelow about such a relationship.
Bigelow Aerospace has proposed building a private space station, leased by governments and corporations for research. Initial launch of space station components is planned for 2014 -- with portions of the station available for use as early as the following year.