The world’s most powerful exploration rocket—the Space Launch System (SLS)—will be ready for its first test launch by November 2018, NASA officials have announced. The SLS is designed to take humans further into deep space than ever before.
“We are on a journey of scientific and human exploration that leads to Mars,” NASA Administrator Charles Boden said in a news release.
The Space Launch System has been in development for around three years, but official approval was only granted recently following a rigorous review of cost and production issues. The review, known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), set a baseline cost of $7.021 billion for the development of a smaller, 70-metric-ton version of the SLS. This version will be used for the flight test, known as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), and will carry an unmanned Orion spacecraft on a three week flight beyond low-Earth orbit.
The Orion vehicle is part of a separate project under development that intends to piggyback on the SLS and carry people to Mars on a several month-long journey. Orion’s first test flight is scheduled for December of this year when it will launch atop a ULA Delta IV Heavy booster during the Exploration Flight Test-1 mission.
It is anticipated that the first manned flight of the SLS, EM-1, will take place around 2020/2021, which could visit an asteroid.
The final version of the SLS will stand 122 meters tall (400 feet) and have a 130-metric-ton (143 tons) lift capability, making it the world’s most powerful rocket by far. This will enable us to explore our solar system further than ever before. The total cost of developing SLS—which involves producing three versions—is estimated to be a whopping $12 billion.
While NASA has given us a test flight date of no later than the end of 2018, it is possible that the rocket will be ready for launch as early as December 2017. The conservative estimate allows for scheduling and funding issues that could arise over the next few years.
“Our nation has embarked on an ambitious space exploration program, and we owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right,” Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a NASA news release. “After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s—and we’re going to stand behind that commitment.”
Concerns about the development schedule and funding plan have already been raised by the Government Accountability Office. They suggest the program may need an extra $400 million. NASA officials have said that they are taking these suggestion into account and are in the process of addressing the recommendations.