NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket designed for deep space exploration will be ready for its first flight no later than 2018 and is expected to cost $7 billion through the first launch agency officials announced Wednesday after completing a key review.
The Space Launch System is the rocket NASA has been designing to carry humans beyond low-Earth orbit and eventually to Mars. It is intended to replace the space shuttle fleet, which was retired in 2011. Passing the review, known as Key Decision Point C, is something NASA said “no other exploration class vehicle has achieved since the agency built the space shuttle.”
NASA maintains that the first test flight of the SLS could happen as early as 2017, but that the agency is committed to having the rocket ready for launch by the end of 2018. The space agency is now moving forward from the formulation stage to the development of the heavy-lift rocket.
According to NASA, the SLS is estimated to cost $7 billion between February 2014 and November 2018, not including the cost of the Orion capsule. The first test flight of the SLS will carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit.
“Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program, and we owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “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.”
Once its final configuration is completed, the SLS will be the largest rocket ever created, towering above even the Saturn V rocket that carried humans to the Moon. The SLS will also be the most powerful rocket ever built, capable of carrying a payload of up to 130 metric tons. The SLS is scheduled to be used to take astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s.