The Space Launch System (SLS) is the next step in NASA’s space exploration programme. The retirement of the Space Shuttle in July 2011 has left America without a means to take their own astronauts to orbit for the first time since 1981, but such a step was necessary in order to transition from missions into low Earth orbit (LEO) to deep space missions.
LEO is being left to the realm of private space companies, with NASA now focusing its exploration efforts almost solely on deep space. The SLS is the rocket that will enable humans to reach new destinations such as an asteroid and Mars.
Since its announcement the SLS has received some harsh criticism, with some nicknaming it the ‘Senate Launch System’, a reference to Congress dictating that NASA build a rocket it didn’t want. This makes little sense, however.
A giant heavy-lift rocket like the SLS is a necessity for NASA to carry out its goal of taking humans beyond Earth orbit as other heavy-lift rockets, such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, simply don’t have the muscle for some of NASA’s proposed missions.
The rocket is scheduled for its first flight in late 2017 in what is known as the Block 1 configuration. This rocket will tower 98 metres (321 feet) high, taller than London’s Big Ben, and will have the ability to take 70 metric tons to orbit, the equivalent of 12 elephants. With this rocket, NASA will be able to take astronauts on its Orion spacecraft to its stated goal of visiting an asteroid for the first time in human history.
But construction of the SLS doesn’t stop there. The SLS is designed to be able to evolve as and when required into a larger rocket. Once Block 1 is complete, NASA will begin construction on the bigger Block 2. This rocket will stand 117 metres (384 feet) tall and will be able to take 130 metric tons into orbit, equivalent to nine school buses. This version of the rocket is not set to fly until the 2030s, but it will be essential in a manned mission to Mars.
Where next? Well, NASA has some future plans for this rocket that it’s keeping under wraps for now, but the SLS chief engineer Garry Lyles told us that “some of those plans go well beyond 130 tons.” Such plans could include the building of a space station in lunar orbit, the transportation of a small human colony to Mars or even missions beyond the Red Planet. While we’ll have to wait to see what exciting proposals NASA has up its sleeve, one thing is for sure: without the SLS the expansion of the human race beyond Earth orbit wouldn’t be possible.