Eighteen months after President Barack Obama announced the Administration's new plan for space exploration, NASA has selected a design for an essential component—the new Space Launch System—a powerful, heavy lift rocket that will carry astronauts and cargo beyond low-Earth orbit into deep space. It is meant to be the lynchpin of the Administration's human spaceflight program, whose size and schedule have been the subject of contentious congressional debates and political bickering.
The Administration had initially set a deadline of 2015 for picking a design for the heavy lift vehicle. But lawmakers pressured the Administration to hasten the selection process, so that the vehicle would be ready to transport astronauts into deep space before the end of the decade. This morning's announcement is NASA's response.
"This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. said at a news conference this morning at the U.S. Senate Dirksen building. "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, kids today can now dream of one day walking on Mars." Bolden said nothing about when that day might come.
The new rocket will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system, with an initial lift capacity of 70 metric tons. Eventually, it will be able to carry 130 metric tons. NASA plans to use it to send astronauts to an asteroid by the end of the decade, and ultimately to Mars. NASA expects to be able to launch the first developmental flight by the end of 2017.
"The Space Launch System, or SLS, will be designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, as well as important cargo, equipment and science experiments to Earth's orbit and destinations beyond. Additionally, the SLS will serve as a back up for commercial and international partner transportation services to the International Space Station," according to a press release from NASA.
NASA's announcement today makes no mention of how much the vehicle will cost, but it attempts to allay concerns by saying that the program will significantly reduce development and operations costs by using "technological investments from the Space Shuttle program and the Constellation program." An Associated Press story says the estimated price tag is $35 billion. The space agency is likely to face prolonged battles on the Hill over the funding required to build the rocket.
"This decision to proceed with development of the Space Launch System is long overdue," according to a joint statement from Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX), chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee; Representative Stevel Palazzo (R-MS), chair of the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics; and Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. "It is our sincere hope that today's announcement signals a breakthrough with this president that will help alleviate the uncertainty that has plagued our aerospace industrial base and wreaked havoc on its employees. We will not judge today's announcement by the Administration's words, but by their deeds and actions in the coming months and years."