To get humans to Mars you need a really, really big rocket. Bigger than anything that has ever been launched before, including the Saturn V Moon rocket, in order to launch all the necessary components into space.
It’s a good thing, then, that NASA is hard at work building such a rocket. And it has just completed a critical review that ensures construction can begin soon, with a first launch scheduled for 2019, although the Mars missions won’t begin until the 2030s at the earliest.
The first iteration of the Space Launch System will stand 98 meters (322 feet) tall, produce 3.8 million kilograms (8.4 million pounds) of thrust at liftoff and weigh 2.5 million kilograms (5.5 million pounds). This initial configuration – known as Block 1 – will be able to take 70 metric tons of cargo into space, more than twice the power of any rocket in operation. But the eventual Block 2 will have a lifting capability of more than 140 tons, making it the most powerful rocket in history.
The Critical Design Review saw 13 teams review 1,000 files of data on the rocket over 11 weeks, a comprehensive assessment process that all new NASA rockets and spacecraft must go through. In fact, this is the first in-depth review for a NASA exploration vehicle in nearly 40 years, since the Space Shuttle. A Standard Review Board will now assess the program’s readiness, before NASA presents all the results to the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
"Critical design review represents a major commitment by the agency to human exploration, and through these reviews, we ensure the SLS design is on track to being a safe, sustainable and evolvable launch vehicle that will meet the agency's goals and missions,” said Todd May, SLS program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in a statement.
The inaugural launch in 2019 will see an uncrewed Orion spacecraft launched into orbit, demonstrating both the performance of the SLS and Orion, ahead of manned flights to an asteroid in the 2020s, followed by a Mars mission in the 2030s or 2040s. Orion will undergo a similar review later this year, after which NASA will set a firm date for the first flight of SLS and Orion, dubbed Exploration Mission-1.
"We've nailed our review schedules," said Garry Lyles, chief engineer for the SLS Program Office at the Marshall Center, in the statement. "The team is performing at a really high level. And I’m unbelievably positive in the structural robustness of this vehicle; it has tremendous performance. We’ve picked the right vehicle for the journey to Mars."