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NASA‘s Space Launch System: The Next Giant Leap

Hey there! Have you heard about NASA‘s new mega-rocket called the Space Launch System? This powerful rocket is designed to bring astronauts back to the moon through the Artemis program.

I wanted to share with you everything you need to know about the SLS – its history, specs, size, capabilities, and what missions it will be used for. I‘ll also compare it to other famous rockets from the past and present. Keep reading for a deep dive into NASA’s newest launch vehicle!

NASA first announced the Artemis lunar exploration program back in 2017. The goal was to return humans to the lunar surface using innovative new technologies.

While private space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin started working on their own moon rockets, NASA took a different approach. They decided to design the most powerful rocket ever built – the Space Launch System.

NASA contracted leading aerospace companies to help develop the SLS. This new megarocket would surpass even the mighty Saturn V that took astronauts to the moon during Apollo.

The SLS represents the biggest rocket NASA has ever built. When completed, it will be capable of lofting more payload mass than any other rocket in history. Keep reading to learn all about the design, specs, and future mission plans for the SLS!

Quick SLS Facts

Before we get into the details, here are some key facts about the Space Launch System:

  • First Proposed: 2011
  • Manufacturer: Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Northrop Grumman
  • Height: 322 ft (98 m) to 365 ft (111 m)
  • Mass: 5.75 million lb (2,600,000 kg)
  • Payload to LEO: 59,500 lb (27,000 kg) to 209,000 lb (95,000 kg)
  • Payload to Moon: 79,500 lb (36,000 kg) to 143,000 lb (65,000 kg)
  • Launch Date: November 2022 (planned)
  • Program Cost: Over $20 billion to develop

Now let‘s look under the hood…

How SLS Builds on Past Rocket Programs

The Space Launch System utilizes proven technology from past NASA rockets like the Space Shuttle. This approach saves on development costs and makes use of existing resources.

For example, the first stage of the SLS uses modified Space Shuttle Main Engines (RS-25) originally built by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The solid rocket boosters are based on the Shuttle‘s design too.

NASA also contracted Boeing to construct the core stage, Northrop Grumman for the boosters, and other major contractors for systems engineering.

This combined expertise from across the space industry allows the SLS to benefit from decades of rocket experience. NASA is building on the Saturn V, Space Shuttle and other programs to create the ultimate rocket for deep space exploration.

Space Launch System Versions

The SLS is designed in several configurations called Blocks. Each version builds on the capabilities of the previous one.

Block 1

The initial Block 1 SLS will stand 322 feet (98 m) tall and be able to haul 59,500 lb (27,000 kg) to lunar orbit. It uses an upper stage based on the Delta IV rocket to give the Orion spacecraft a boost towards the Moon.

This first version will be used for the uncrewed Artemis I test flight planned for November 2022.

Block 1B

For Artemis II and III, NASA will use the more powerful Block 1B configuration. This replaces the upper stage with the larger, more efficient Exploration Upper Stage (EUS).

The EUS will enable these crewed flights to send up to 79,500 lb (36,000 kg) to lunar orbit – a 33% increase over Block 1. The Block 1B rocket will stand 365 feet (111 m) tall.

Block 2

Later crewed moon landings will require an even bigger rocket. The Block 2 SLS will use upgraded boosters and an enlarged payload fairing.

Block 2 will haul over 209,000 lb (95,000 kg) to low Earth orbit. That‘s over 3.5 times more mass than Block 1 can handle. Its high-energy EUS upper stage will enable payloads up to 143,000 lb (65,000 kg) to be sent towards the Moon.

This version will allow large components like lunar landers and surface habitat modules to be launched. The Block 2 rocket will truly be a heavy lift vehicle for deep space exploration.

Space Launch System Specs

Now let‘s compare the different SLS configurations and their capabilities:

Specification Block 1 Block 1B Block 2
Height 322 ft (98 m) 365 ft (111 m) 365 ft (111 m)
Mass 5.75M lb (2,600,000 kg) 6.5M lb (2,950,000 kg) 6.5M lb (2,950,000 kg)
Payload to LEO 59,500 lb (27,000 kg) 87,000 lb (39,500 kg) 209,000 lb (95,000 kg)
Payload to TLI 26,000 kg (57,000 lb) 36,000 kg (79,500 lb) 65,000 kg (143,000 lb)
Core Stage Engines 4x RS-25 4x RS-25 4x RS-25
Core Stage Height 212 ft (65 m) 212 ft (65 m) 212 ft (65 m)
Core Stage Width 27.6 ft (8.4 m) 27.6 ft (8.4 m) 27.6 ft (8.4 m)
Upper Stage ICPS EUS EUS
SRBs Shuttle-derived Advanced Boosters Advanced Boosters

As you can see, the SLS evolves over time to lift more mass into space. This gradual growth strategy allows NASA to spread development costs over time rather than trying to build the largest version up front.

Now let‘s see how the Space Launch System compares to other famous rockets:

How SLS Compares to Other Rockets

While the Saturn V remains the tallest and most powerful rocket ever flown, the SLS will surpass it in maximum payload capacity:

Rocket Height Payload to LEO Payload to Moon First Launch
Saturn V 363 ft (111 m) 310,000 lb (140,000 kg) 107,100 lb (48,600 kg) 1967
Space Shuttle 184 ft (56 m) 50,000 lb (22,700 kg) 32,000 lb (14,500 kg) 1981
Falcon Heavy 229 ft (70 m) 141,000 lb (64,000 kg) 57,000 lb (26,000 kg) 2018
SLS Block 1 322 ft (98 m) 59,500 lb (27,000 kg) 79,500 lb (36,000 kg) 2022
SLS Block 2 365 ft (111 m) 209,000 lb (95,000 kg) 143,000 lb (65,000 kg) TBD

As you can see, the Falcon Heavy comes close to the Saturn V in capability. But NASA‘s SLS Block 2 will haul over twice the payload of the Falcon Heavy.

The SLS Block 1 and Block 2 will far exceed any operational rocket today. Only the immense Saturn V has lifted more payload mass into space.

Some key advantages of the SLS over commercial rockets:

  • Larger fairing and payload volume for big modules
  • Higher lift capacity to deep space destinations
  • Proven main engines and boosters

However, one downside of the SLS is the high program cost, estimated over $20 billion. Commercial options like SpaceX‘s Starship may eventually provide cheaper heavy lift capabilities.

But for now, no other rocket packs the same punch as NASA‘s new SLS for deep space exploration. And the late 2022 test launch will be just the beginning…

The Artemis Missions: SLS to the Moon and Beyond

NASA‘s Artemis program aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface using innovative new technologies like the SLS. The series of missions is named after Apollo’s twin sister Artemis in Greek mythology.

The SLS will launch the Orion spacecraft on several missions around and ultimately to the Moon. Here’s an overview of the planned Artemis flights:

Artemis I

  • Launch date: November 2022
  • Rocket: SLS Block 1
  • Mission: Uncrewed test flight of SLS and Orion. Orion will enter a distant retrograde lunar orbit and return to Earth. This critical test will pave the way for crewed flights.

Artemis II

  • Launch: 2024
  • Rocket: SLS Block 1B
  • Mission: First crewed flight of SLS and Orion. The spacecraft will orbit the Moon and return, testing systems for later moon landings.

Artemis III

  • Launch: 2025
  • Rocket: SLS Block 1B
  • Mission: Lands the first woman and next man on the Moon‘s south pole. They will arrive via a human landing system and stay for 6.5 days before returning to Orion in lunar orbit.

Artemis IV-VIII

  • Launch: 2026-2030
  • Rocket: SLS Block 1B and Block 2
  • Mission: Establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon. The powerful SLS will launch the Gateway lunar space station, landers, refueling vehicles, and surface habitats.

The Artemis program represents a bold next chapter in human lunar exploration. The Space Launch System will play a crucial role in delivering components for establishing infrastructure around the Moon.

This will enable extended surface missions and testing technologies for an eventual voyage to Mars. SLS has the size and strength needed to make the next giant leaps possible!

Well there you have it – everything you need to know about NASA‘s new megarocket, the Space Launch System. From its design roots in past programs to its epic capabilities, the SLS represents a new era in deep space exploration.

I‘m excited to see the very first SLS test flight come to life in late 2022. Its tremendous lifting power will be key to executing ambitious moon missions under the Artemis program. Beyond the Moon, it may even launch future astronauts to worlds as far as Mars!

I hope you found this SLS overview insightful. Let me know if you have any other questions about NASA‘s new rocket. The future looks bright and the skies are no limit as the Space Launch System propels exploration farther than ever!