NASA today unveiled its latest designs for a workhorse heavy-launch vehicle that it hopes will lift the human spaceflight programme out of a morass and beyond low-Earth orbit. The behemoth, more than 10 metres taller than the Saturn V, would be the most powerful rocket ever to lift people into space. The rocket, with configurations for both 70 and 130 tonnes of thrust, appears to reflect a compromise between competing versions pushed by legislators and the Obama administration, a logjam that had left the agency rudderless even as the last flights of the space shuttle came and went.
The rocket, part of what’s called the Space Launch System, would use heritage hardware and designs from both the shuttle and the Ares V, which was to have returned astronauts to the Moon as a part of the defunct Constellation programme.
NASA officials say they’re aiming for a late-2017 crew-less test flight, in advance of a 2021 test that would put people in the Orion crew module that sits on top of the rocket. The programme would cost US$3 billion a year to get to the test launch — less than the agency spent per year on the shuttle programme.
The rocket’s core stage is the same diameter as the space shuttle’s external fuel tank, and the engines of this core stage would also be the same as the shuttle’s. Moreover, the rocket in its most robust formulation would be flanked by booster rockets, which, at least in the initial test flight, would be the same solid-fuel boosters used on the shuttle. The main leftover from the Ares V design would be a second stage engine, called J2X. The agency is still vague on where the rockets would be pointed and what they would be used for — though officials say that a visit to an asteroid in 2025 is a reasonable goal.