NASA's Mars-Bound Space Launch System Rocket Passes Critical Design Review

This latest artist's impression shows that NASA has also changed the paint scheme for the Space Launch System. NASA.

Another small step has been taken on the path to getting humans to Mars by the 2030s. NASA’s huge upcoming Space Launch System (SLS) rocket has passed its critical design review (CDR), the first human-rated NASA rocket to do so for 40 years since the Space Transportation System (STS), otherwise known as the Space Shuttle. It’s a pretty big deal.

The review was completed back in July, assessing various components of the rocket such as its engines and boosters. The results of the review have now been briefed to the Agency Program Management Council, the final step in the CDR process, which means all systems are go to start building the rocket ahead of its first launch in 2018 at the earliest.

“There have been challenges, and there will be more ahead, but this review gives us confidence that we are on the right track for the first flight of SLS and using it to extend permanent human presence into deep space,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Division, in a statement.

This was the last of four reviews of the rocket; the next step now is to actually build it by 2017, when it will be vigorously assessed ahead of its launch the following year. This first launch will be an unmanned test flight; the first manned flight, using an Orion spacecraft, will take place in the early 2020s. Ultimately, SLS will be used to launch key components for a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.

Eventually, there will be two versions of the SLS. The initial smaller Block 1 configuration will be 98 meters (322 feet) tall, produce 4 million kilograms (8.8 million pounds) of thrust at lift off and weigh 2.6 million kilograms (5.75 million pounds). This will enable it to take 70 metric tons (77 tons) of cargo into space, more than twice the capability of any rocket currently in operation.

The Block 2 configuration, though, will be not only taller at 111 meters (365 feet), but will also use advanced boosters that will enable it to launch 130 metric tons (143 tons), a similar capability to that of the Saturn V rocket that took Apollo astronauts to the Moon, the most powerful rocket in history.

“This [review] is a major step in the design and readiness of SLS,” said John Honeycutt, SLS program manager, in the statement. “Our team has worked extremely hard, and we are moving forward with building this rocket. We are qualifying hardware, building structural test articles, and making real progress.”

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