NASA and Boeing have recently finalized a contract to build the world’s most powerful rocket. The $2.8 billion deal was signed to develop the core stage for the completion of NASA’s Space Launch System. This is a heavy launch exploration rocket designed to bring human passengers as well as cargo beyond low-Earth orbit to the moon, Mars, asteroids, and into deep space. The targeted, unmanned test launch from the Kennedy Space Center will take place in late 2017 off of Florida’s Cape Canaveral.
After review of the core stage’s final design plan, NASA is giving Boeing permission to commence with the production of the Space Launch System and to conduct a preliminary study for the development of an upper stage that could be used on a larger version of the rocket, which already starts out as being 5.5 million pounds as well as 321 feet tall and capable of lifting 70 metric tons. With the addition of the upper stage, it would grow to 384 feet tall with the capability of carrying up to 130 metric tons.
The core stage, which is 212 feet tall and 27.6 feet in diameter, will deliver liquid hydrogen as well as liquid oxygen to four RS-25 main engines in the space shuttle. At lift off, it will be assisted by two larger versions of rocket boosters. The core stage will begin construction in NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility located near New Orleans, where the external shuttle tanks were previously manufactured. The core stage project is led by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
In order to get the entire rocket completed and ready for its first launch, NASA plans on spending between $7.7 billion and $8.6 billion. Ground systems that are supporting the launch from Kennedy Space Center are estimated to cost an additional $3 billion. The space agency is expected to soon confirm the budget and schedule approximations for the initial capabilities. The agency warned that they have low expectations that the initial capabilities will reach its goal compared to that of big-budget programs.
Now that NASA and Boeing have finalized the contract, the development of the core stage is critical and will be the determining factor on whether or not the Space Launch System program stays on schedule. NASA has not yet revealed how much it will cost to build another Space Launch System for the first manned flight planned for launch in 2021, or the cost of developing larger versions as well as operate the program.
In January, Boeing confirmed rumors that the Air Force’s X-37B space plane which Boeing operates, would be moving into at least one hangar, formerly used for shuttles, at the Kennedy Space Center. One of only two reusable X-37B space crafts currently remain in orbit after being launched in December of 2012. Two previous flights landed in California at Vandenberg Air Force Base, but there is speculation that the current one might touch back down at the Kennedy Space Center on the former shuttle runway.
It has taken four years for the Obama Administration’s goal of exploring deep space to get to this point in reality. In 2010, President Obama decided to forgo former President George W. Bush’s project that had the ambition of sending another man to the moon and instead focused on sending a manned mission to Mars and beyond. Now that Boeing and NASA have finalized the contract, step one of exploring deep space and the red planet is complete.
By Laura Simmons