Future NASA rocket to be most powerful ever built (Update)

Sep 14, 2011 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer
This artist concept provided by NASA shows the launch of the rocket design, called the Space Launch System. The design for NASA's newest behemoth of a rocket harkens back to the giant workhorse liquid rockets that propelled men to the moon. But this time the destinations will be much farther and the rocket even more powerful. (AP Photo/NASA)

To soar far away from Earth and even beyond the moon, NASA has dreamed up the world's most powerful rocket, a behemoth that borrows from the workhorse liquid rockets that sent Apollo missions into space four decades ago.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and several members of Congress joined Wednesday in unveiling the Obama administration's much-delayed general plans for its rocket design, called the Space Launch System. The multibillion-dollar program will carry astronauts in a capsule on top, but the first mission would be 10 years off if all goes as planned. Unmanned test launches are expected from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in six years.

Calling it the "largest, most powerful rocket built," NASA's exploration and operations chief, William Gerstenmaier, said the rocket will be tough to construct. But when NASA does it "we'll have a capability to go beyond low-Earth orbit like no other nation does here on Earth," he said in a telephone briefing Wednesday.

Even the smallest early prototype of the rocket will have 10 percent more thrust than the Saturn V that propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon. When it is built to its fuller size, it will be 20 percent more powerful, Gerstenmaier said.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., noted the economic challenges the nation faces even as NASA maps plans for a rocket system some estimate at $35 billion.

"Will it be tough times going forward? Of course it is," Nelson said in a separate news conference. "We are in an era in which we have to do more with less - all across the board - and the competition for the available dollars will be fierce. But what we have here now are the realistic costs" verified by independent experts.

Nelson puts the cost of the program at about $18 billion over the next five years. But that estimate is mostly for development and design through the first test flight in 2017, and doesn't include production of later rockets, Gerstenmaier said. Gerstenmaier wouldn't give a total estimate, but a knowledgeable administration source has put it about almost double that.

The size, shape and heavier reliance on liquid fuel as opposed to solid rocket boosters is much closer to Apollo than the recently retired space shuttles, which were winged, reusable ships that sat on top of a giant liquid fuel tank, with twin solid rocket boosters providing most of the power. It's also a shift in emphasis from the moon-based, solid-rocket-oriented plans proposed by the George W. Bush administration.

This artist's conception released by NASA shows the Space Launch System -- an advanced heavy-lift launch vehicle that will provide an entirely new national capability for human exploration beyond Earth's orbit.

"It's back to the future with a reliable liquid technology," said Stanford University professor Scott Hubbard, a former NASA senior manager who was on the board that investigated the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident.

NASA figures it will be building and launching about one rocket a year for about 15 years or more in the 2020s and 2030s, according to senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to make the announcement. The idea is to launch its first unmanned test flight in 2017 with the first crew flying in 2021 and astronauts heading to a nearby asteroid in 2025, the officials said. From there, NASA hopes to send the rocket and astronauts to Mars - at first just to circle, but then later landing on the Red Planet - in the 2030s.

At first, the rockets will be able to carry into space 77 to 110 tons, which would include the six-person Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle capsule and more. Eventually it will be able to carry 143 tons into space, maybe even 165 tons, the officials said. By comparison, the long-dormant Saturn V booster that sent men to the moon was able to lift 130 tons.

The plans dwarf the rumbling liftoff power of the space shuttle, which could haul just 27 tons. The biggest current unmanned rocket can carry about 25 tons.

The plans elicited an amazed "good grief" from Hubbard, who said it would limit how often they could be built or launched. Unlike the reusable shuttle, these rockets are mostly one-and-done, with new ones built for every launch.

Some of the design elements, the deadline and the requirement for such a rocket were dictated by Congress.

While the recently retired space shuttle's main engines were fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, it was primarily powered into orbit by solid rockets. Solid rocket boosters were designed to be cheaper, but a booster flaw caused the fatal space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986. The biggest drawback was that solid rockets can't be stopped once they are lit; liquid ones can.

The new plan is to use a giant rocket powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Apollo, Gemini and Mercury flew into space on liquid rockets, and liquids fuel most of the world's unmanned commercial rockets. Russia's Soyuz rocket is liquid fueled too.

During its initial test flights the rocket will use five solid rocket boosters designed for the shuttle strapped on its outside and will have shuttle main engines powering it on the inside. But soon after that the solid rocket boosters will be replaced with new boosters that should have new technology and may be either liquid or solid, the officials said

The key financial part of this arrangement is that NASA hopes to save money by turning over the launching of astronauts to the International Space Station, which orbits the Earth, to private companies and just rent spaces for astronauts like a giant taxi service. NASA would then spend the money on leaving Earth's orbit and the Earth-moon system.

Hubbard worries that NASA has a history of spending far more than initially proposed - the space shuttle cost about twice what it was supposed to - and this new rocket system will drain money from other NASA missions.

Explore further: Manchester scientists boost NASA's missions to Mars

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tigger
3.9 / 5 (14) Sep 14, 2011
Give the money to Space X instead, they seem to be much more efficient and effective.
eigenbasis
4.1 / 5 (8) Sep 14, 2011
Does this sound like the Constellation program to anyone?
Nanobanano
1.2 / 5 (19) Sep 14, 2011
I'm sorry, but we do NOT need a manned mission to an Asteroid any time soon, and definitely not to land there.

That is a damned suicide mission, even if it's to a BIG one like Ceres or Vesta.

A space walk in ultra-low gravity in an uncontrolled environment like the asteroid belt is nuts.

Just opening the hatch of a lander could be fatal, because when air vents it could produce thrust and blow the lander on it's side, or give it escape velocity. Just walking around at a normal gait might accidentally cause an astronaut to make escape velocity.

So what is the point of doing this, when a sufficiently advanced robot could do ANY of the same science there at around 100th of the total cost?

Landing on Mars is easier and safer than landing on an asteroid, and almost certainly serves more scientifc value.
MikeSpreafico
1.9 / 5 (7) Sep 14, 2011
space x already has ships ready to go 6 yrs is a waste of time and money.as w fall further behind.
NotAsleep
4.8 / 5 (19) Sep 14, 2011
A space walk in ultra-low gravity in an uncontrolled environment like the asteroid belt is nuts.

Just opening the hatch of a lander could be fatal, because when air vents it could produce thrust and blow the lander on it's side, or give it escape velocity. Just walking around at a normal gait might accidentally cause an astronaut to make escape velocity.

Good call, Nanobanano. I'll bet no one at NASA has considered this yet! Just like that time they landed on the moon and were like "Woah! Where's all the air! This place isn't anything like what we were expecting!"

Yea, different situation, but you get the point
Jotaf
1.8 / 5 (8) Sep 14, 2011
It's good to know that at least they're planning to go somewhere. Of course you need a big rocket and currently there's none. But still, it begs the question: what about digging up the Saturn V plans and building an updated version?

Many engineering problems were solved back in the day, and the same problems will give new engineers the same headaches again. It would at least warrant a study to check the feasibility of recycling the technology. In the military, a 40 years-old vehicle design with upgraded electronics is not unheard of.
Jo01
4.4 / 5 (5) Sep 14, 2011
It will be a Chinese flag on Mars.

J.
CHollman82
2.1 / 5 (11) Sep 14, 2011
So they are going to go from a reusable economical shuttle to a one-shot extremely expensive rocket... sounds like they are regressing. Can anyone explain this decision? We should be looking for more economical and reusable methods to deliver humans and cargo to low earth orbit and then use the ISS or some other platform as a staging area for long distance exploration.
Nanobanano
2.8 / 5 (10) Sep 14, 2011
So they are going to go from a reusable economical shuttle to a one-shot extremely expensive rocket... sounds like they are regressing. Can anyone explain this decision?


Your reasoning is flawed. The shuttle was never economical.

1) It was overly massive, meaning payload was only a small fraction of the mass of the orbitted portion of the vessel, i.e. the glider, which you must pay to lift every time you launch it.

For the amount of fuel spent on that glider every time, you could have sent up countless small payload capsules and modules, and then send up manned missions in small capsules only as needed to assemble space station components.

Instead, they waste most of the fuel mass, and most of all of the entier design, just in lifting the glider itself.

2) It was overly complex, leading to two catastrophic failures and countless maintenance, repair, and re-design issues throughout the program's lifetime.

Nanobanano
2.5 / 5 (6) Sep 14, 2011
With the space launch system, it looks like as much as 2/3rds to 3/4ths of the "payload" of the rockets will be spent on "Cargo" i.e. whatever you want for that particular mission, and not the mass of the manned capsules.

In the Space shuttle, the "payload," which in this case is the actual cargo, is only around 1/80th of the mass of the orbiter.

SLS is 66% to 75% mass as cargo

vs

Space Shuttle is 1.25% mass as cargo

The new system will be 50 times more efficient in cargo to fuel mass ratio, at least in theory of sending a full payload every time, may as well send up "something" useful if you have the space, right?
Nanobanano
2.4 / 5 (5) Sep 14, 2011
This system is probably going to be used to eventually launch components of a spun gravity simulating ship for manned flight to Mars, which is something I highly doubt any of the existing launch technologies could accomplish (except maybe the Saturn V, but they don't even have the infrastructure to make those any more, thus the re-design).

http://en.wikiped..._Vehicle

The currently planned crew module is allegedly going to be 10 times safer than the space shuttle glider.

so there you have it, at least allegedly, exponentially more fuel efficient per unit cargo, and an order of magnitude better safety.

Clearly, the Space Shuttle was just flat out a bad investment and the wrong way for the space program to go...
NotAsleep
4.2 / 5 (11) Sep 14, 2011
To piggyback on that: NASA is slowly divesting itself of the "low earth orbit" business, which small business can now accomplish since it is becoming profitable. NASA will continue to extend itself into the unprofitable yet scientifically relevant realms of interplanetary travel, which is why they're focusing on this behemoth rocket
Husky
2.1 / 5 (7) Sep 14, 2011
all dandy, but why not pass this truckload of money to SpaceX, they seem very capable and motivated to pull of a mars mission? I would be more happy if Nasa got serious about big nuclear engines and spacex providing the heavy orbit lifter
nononoplease
1.5 / 5 (2) Sep 14, 2011
I support the development of a heavy lift capability.... However: I'll believe it when I see it. Western nations have increasingly lost the will to do anything of bold concerted effort, favoring instead to amuse ourselves to death in various frivolous ways.

Why did they kill off constellation a couple years ago just to start over on a rocket of basically the same capability? Bizarre.
CHollman82
3 / 5 (6) Sep 14, 2011
Your reasoning is flawed. The shuttle was never economical.

1) It was overly massive, meaning payload was only a small fraction of the mass of the orbitted portion of the vessel, i.e. the glider, which you must pay to lift every time you launch it.

For the amount of fuel spent on that glider every time, you could have sent up countless small payload capsules and modules, and then send up manned missions in small capsules only as needed to assemble space station components.

Instead, they waste most of the fuel mass, and most of all of the entier design, just in lifting the glider itself.


That's all well and good, but you're ignoring the fact that the shuttles (and boosters) were reusable and these new rockets will not be in your determination of economy and efficiency.

The cost to build a new launch vehicle every single time will dwarf the benefit of the lift efficiency of the new design.
Erik
1.1 / 5 (7) Sep 14, 2011
But still, it begs the question: what about digging up the Saturn V plans and building an updated version?

We can't. Jimmy Carter went out of his way to order the destruction of the plans for building Saturn V's.
Pkunk_
1.1 / 5 (7) Sep 14, 2011
Well well..
So they killed Ares , only to replace it with something even bigger. The reasoning makes sense. NASA should get out of LEO business and focus on the next gold rush - The asteroid belt.

Just one big asteroid should have nuff rare metals in it to wipe out the US national debt.
Nanobanano
3.3 / 5 (3) Sep 14, 2011
Well well..
So they killed Ares , only to replace it with something even bigger. The reasoning makes sense. NASA should get out of LEO business and focus on the next gold rush - The asteroid belt.

Just one big asteroid should have nuff rare metals in it to wipe out the US national debt.


One big asteroid has, theoretically, more rare metals in it that the total mass of all metals mined in human history.

Think about it, Vesta is twice as wide as California...in 3 dimensions...a few mines in mountains or meteor craters is childs play compared to what is on these objects.

the problem is in actually mining, refining, and transporting these materials.

in order to be economical, building a space refinery will require self assembling nanomachines which can build larger and larger components and systems, in addition to other very highly automated and self-maintaining systems.

Price of Gold is over $1800 per ounce, so theoretically, there IS room for profit margin
Nanobanano
2.2 / 5 (6) Sep 14, 2011
Price of platinum is higher, and price of rare earths used in magnets and certain other technologies, and in some of the new nanotech is much, much higher.

At $10,000 per pound launch costs for a vehicle, if you had automated systems and enough self-assembly in space "on site", you could easily get 40% profit margins, in theory, over the long term, but I haven't figured R&D and labor costs, but with high self assembly those would be minimum and paid for exponentially once the system was in place.

But, you could theoretically ship well, you know, 100 tons of gold back to earth on a single cargo module with a parachute.

That would have a market value of about $5.25 billion dollars at present day prices, although in reality it might just cause the price of Gold to plumet.

For any rare metal like Gold, the price would need to stay at least above $685 per troy ounce to be profitable.
Nanobanano
2 / 5 (6) Sep 14, 2011
Plus, my assumptions are wrong, because if you had self-replicating nano machines, the launch costs would mostly be a minimal "one time" deal, so there's almost no upper limit to profitability both in terms of dollars in vs dollars out, and real physical resources in vs resources out.

But "Dawn" has revealed that Vesta has very little ice on it, which means some prior assumptions about asteroid mining will need to be revised, as there is no obvious source of propellant, even if you have a nuclear fuel source, unless the rocks are made of water-rich minerals.

So there are a lot more things to be worked out and a lot more exploration to determine the types of self-replicating machines that could be made from the materials available on-site...

The idea of sending humans into space to work in permanent mining colonies is completely far-fetched with any remotely forseeable technology.
stealthc
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 14, 2011
what a waste, at least put up a recycling plant in orbit so the materials can be reused instead of being turned into yet even more space junk.
CHollman82
2.2 / 5 (6) Sep 14, 2011
Price of Gold is over $1800 per ounce, so theoretically, there IS room for profit margin


What do you think will happen to that price when we start mining it by the ton on an asteroid?

That's assuming we can even get to it, gold on the Earth was brought to the surface via vulcanism, otherwise it would have remained deep in the core after sinking there due to mass differentiation when the planet was molten.
GDM
4 / 5 (4) Sep 14, 2011
Love all the comments so far. A couple of points to think about: 1. A big rocket is not necessary to put automated factories on the moon, we can do that with hwhat we have. 2. If you want to mine asteroids, why not start with the moon? It has been bombarded for 4.5 billion years. Just look for a crater, any crater. 3. It costs $10,000 USD to put anything into orbit, and more to put it on the moon. There are very few minerals in outer space that are valuable enough to ship back to the earth, so why not use what you find up there to use up there. 4. Orbital debris is a great resource of refined metal, integrated circuits, pre-built propellant tanks, etc. Let's use them rather than burn them up. 5. Let's "learn to walk" first by creating teleoperated factories on the moon, then use the moon as a stepping stone to the rest of the solar system. When the factories have created enough building materials, start dropping some humans to assemble bases, deep space vehicles etc.
ABSOLUTEKNOWLEDGE
1.4 / 5 (11) Sep 14, 2011
NASA IS JUST A PUBLIC STUNT CAMPAIN

THE SECRET SPACE FLEET USES ANTIGRAVITY AND ELECTROLEVITIC PROPULSION SYSTEMS

AND HAS BASES ON MARS AND MOON FOR DECADES

WAKE UP SHEEPLE

El_Nose
4 / 5 (5) Sep 14, 2011
to those screamming space X -- you do realize that the payload capacity of the falcon is 20,000lbs , right?? furthermore , being a private company if it doesn 't make money, it doesn't make sense to do it -- so they have no motivation to actually do something purely for science, unless they are going to profit from the endeavor
CHollman82
2.6 / 5 (5) Sep 14, 2011
furthermore , being a private company if it doesn 't make money, it doesn't make sense to do it -- so they have no motivation to actually do something purely for science, unless they are going to profit from the endeavor


You don't think building an orbiting hotel and shuttle service has profit potential? You don't think doing so requires efficiently lifting massive loads? If I was a billionaire this would be my goal, to be the first and only company offering 3-5 night stays in an orbiting hotel.
Skepticus
3.3 / 5 (3) Sep 14, 2011
judging by NASA's past cost estimates and the reality, I'd quadruple the estimated $35 billion.
CHollman82
3 / 5 (2) Sep 14, 2011
to those screamming space X -- you do realize that the payload capacity of the falcon is 20,000lbs , right??


Also what they call the Falcon Heavy can lift 53 tons into LEO.
Silverhill
4.1 / 5 (9) Sep 14, 2011
@Nanobanano
"A space walk in ultra-low gravity in an uncontrolled environment like the asteroid belt is nuts."

So, you apply controls to that environment--such as safety tethers during EVA.

"Just opening the hatch of a lander could be fatal, because when air vents it could produce thrust and blow the lander on it's [sic] side, or give it escape velocity. Just walking around at a normal gait might accidentally cause an astronaut to make escape velocity."

Nonsense. Go study some physics, including the escape speeds for Ceres and Vesta: 510 m/s and 350 m/s, respectively. Even Usain Bolt on his best day averages a mere 10.44 m/s. (Also, I suppose that there would be provision for pumping the cabin air into storage rather than wasting it. Also, even if one whole atmosphere's worth of pressure were suddenly released from the hatch, it would NOT blow anything over or away.)
Silverhill
4.2 / 5 (5) Sep 14, 2011
@Nanobanano
"With the space launch system, it looks like as much as 2/3rds to 3/4ths of the "payload" of the rockets will be spent on "Cargo" ... In the Space shuttle, the "payload," which in this case is the actual cargo, is only around 1/80th of the mass of the orbiter.
SLS is 66% to 75% mass as cargo
vs
Space Shuttle is 1.25% mass as cargo
The new system will be 50 times more efficient in cargo to fuel mass ratio"

As you noted, "Your reasoning is flawed." 2/3 to 3/4 of the *payload* mass does not at all compare to 1/80 of the *vehicle* mass.
Nanobanano
3 / 5 (4) Sep 15, 2011
Silverhill:

Ceres is not a good target for a first manned mission precisely because it is (believed to be) covered in Ice based on the best science.

Dawn is going to arrive there after the vesta mission and so we'll get much more up close information about the crust of Ceres, but that is not anything any first manned mission has any business attempting to land on, because you might fall down a crevasse or something and be screwed. The ice caps are of unknown scale and thickness.

And of course you have air locks and air-salvaging mechanisms, my god, you must think nobody knows this or something?

Escape velocity says little about the energy needed to flip something over. The surface gravity of Ceres is given as a mere 2.8% of earth gravity.

A person who has a 1 foot vertical jump on Earth would have a 277.5 METERS vertical (90 seconds flight time) on Ceres, that good enough for you?

The Lunar module would only "weigh" 890 lbs on the surface of Ceres...
Nanobanano
2 / 5 (2) Sep 15, 2011
Vesta would be safer than Ceres due to the ice issue, but I wouldn't want to be one of the lab monkeys on either of those missions.
Silverhill
5 / 5 (6) Sep 15, 2011
Ceres is not a good target for a first manned mission precisely because it is (believed to be) covered in Ice based on the best science.
I wasn't recommending or counter-recommending Ceres and Vesta--not until unmanned probes analyze them some more--just noting that their surface gravities, while small, are not negligible.

And of course you have air locks and air-salvaging mechanisms, my god, you must think nobody knows this or something?
Remember this? "...opening the hatch of a lander could be fatal, because ... it could produce thrust and ... give [the lander] escape velocity."
In this you seem to think that the air would be vented, not recovered. Make up your mind.

Escape velocity says little about the energy needed to flip something over.
But inertia says a great deal. And if the cabin air is not vented in a puff, there's nothing to cause a flip-over, right?
Re: Cerean high jumps -- a lander would be tethered/staked down, as would astronauts (as I said).
GSwift7
4.8 / 5 (4) Sep 16, 2011
This is a logical next step. We need to get a new generation of people trained on how to build something like the Saturn V using new technology. Then we can start to build on that.

The comment in the original article about building one of these per year is probably a bit much. How many times per year are we really going to send people to deep space? Would we really send a second mission out when the previous one still wasn't safely returned? Not at first I think.

I'm not sure we can afford it, but it is certainly WAY COOL.

I have no clue, but how does this compare to the cost of other big R&D programs, such as the B2?
Knightrider13
1 / 5 (2) Sep 18, 2011
y don't we just go back to basic. if you think about it all companies in history have done this' it's very simple all NASA have to do is allow more options to be brought forward to them and try and work out witch is best. i mean common it cost $35 million per mission don't you think that they can spend that on research and not blowing it on space missions (like sending A part to space) all i am saying is we can do better than wot we have done already just look back and take in wot we know and move to new way's. thats my opinion thats all i think about it. thanks for reading hope people can understand my point of view.
Ethelred
5 / 5 (2) Sep 18, 2011
Recommendations for the futher.

Paragraphs - learn the concept and USE them. It enhances readability.

English - it has actual words for the concepts you may have been trying to express with personally invented strings of characters such as 'wot'.

Know what you mean and mean what you say. (I have to work harder on the latter myself).

Learn a little about what you are talking about as

i mean common it cost $35 million per mission
No it doesn't. Assuming you meant

Commonly it costs 35 million per mission

Then that was wrong as most of the rocket launches cost more than that and the payloads tend to cost more than the rockets.

Cost per launch US$36.7 million(1987)
From Wikipedia and somehow I suspect it costs rather a bit more in 2011.

Falcon 9 launches cost around 50Megabuck and up. It may cost less IF they ever get it going as a steady launch vehicle. DeltaII is at end of life.

Research on the ground is not the point of NASA. The point is SPACE.

Ethelred
macsglen
4.5 / 5 (2) Sep 18, 2011
I don't have much hope for it. As the article says:

"Some of the design elements, the deadline and the requirement for such a rocket were dictated by Congress."

See my point?
NotAsleep
4 / 5 (1) Sep 19, 2011
Wot we 'ave 'ere is a failya ta communicate
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Sep 19, 2011
Falcon 9 launches cost around 50Megabuck and up. It may cost less IF they ever get it going as a steady launch vehicle. DeltaII is at end of life.

I'm not overly optimistic on that. At the very beginning of the shuttle program they said that it would bring down the launch costs to 20 million dollars.

After the program is now over the average launch cost came out to be 450 million dollars.

Even though the first figure was in 1985-dollars (which would be equivalent to 50 million dollars in 2011) you can see that a 'reduction in launch costs' was nowhere near realized throughout the entire program.

And no: Not even economics of scale (at the originally planned 50 launches per year) would have gotten us a reduction to the point where it had actually made spaceflight cheaper than the earlier rocket based approach.
pokerdice1
5 / 5 (2) Oct 03, 2011
People need to start making their points without insult or ad hominem attacks on other posters. I don't care how "correct" or how "slam dunk you point is. This childishness needs to stop. Would anyone posting here honestly speak this way to their fellows like this in person?

No matter how "stupid" or "ignorant" you think the other posters are being, be respectful.

I, myself, will be routinely reporting and one rating insulting posts. Let's follow the golden rule people!

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