Wednesday, September 14, 2011

NASA Unveils New Space Launch System

NASA will be several years away from being able to launch men into space after retiring the shuttle fleet, but Congress appears ready to approve a new space launch system that will be capable of not only sending men into low earth orbit, but propelling manned spacecraft to the moon or beyond - Mars.
The Obama administration on Wednesday unveiled its much-delayed general plans for its rocket design, called the Space Launch System, which will cost about $35 billion. It will begin unmanned test flights in six years, and carry astronauts in a capsule on top in a decade.

"This is a great day for NASA and the nation," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at a U.S. Senate news conference called to unveil the concept.

Two of the senators who worked with NASA and the White House on the plan, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson and Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, said they were pleased by the plan and signaled that Congress would give its assent.

"I believe we really are going forward now, all as one, with one goal," Hutchison told journalists. She said the plan was "a commitment that NASA — NASA — is going to lead the pack."

Closer to Apollo
The size, shape and potentially 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.

"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 with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in advance of Wednesday's 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 tons to 110 tons of payload, which would include the six-person Orion multipurpose crew vehicle 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 humans to the moon was able to lift 130 tons.

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