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Introducing the 'World's Most Powerful Rocket': NASA's SLS

Aug 28, 2014 01:01 PM EDT

NASA officially announced the approval of the next generation rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) on Wednesday, enabling the agency to move away from formulation tests and into the practical stages of development.

This is the first approval of this kind since NASA began building its iconic space shuttles in the early 1980s.

The SLS is deemed a "human exploration class vehicle" and is designed to take humans well beyond Earth. NASA hopes to use the rocket, when completed, to bring a team of astronauts to Mars, potentially within the Orion spacecraft, which is already well into development.

"We are on a journey of scientific and human exploration that leads to Mars," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recently said in statement. "And we're firmly committed to building the launch vehicle and other supporting systems that will take us on that journey."

"Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program, and we owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right," added Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who oversaw the review process. "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."

What is being called Key Decision Point C has already determined that the initial rocket will be a 70-metric ton version, costing more than $7 billion and given three to four years of building time. The first SLS flight is expected to occur no later than November 2018.

The rocket is also designed with an unprecedented lift capacity of 130 metric tons, enabling deep space missions even past Mars. The next most powerful rocket, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy (also in the developmental stage), can only lift a third of that weight.

Early research stages prior to this decision included miniaturized testing and in-depth analysis of potential components used on the SLS. Now the agency hopes that all that preparation will expedite the building process.

"Engineers have made significant technical progress on the rocket and have produced hardware for all elements of the SLS program," said SLS program manager Todd May. "The team members deserve an enormous amount of credit for their dedication to building this national asset."

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