Sep 15, 2011

Nasa Shows Off "Most Powerful Rocket in History".

Bill Nelson at the Nasa launch
At the Nasa announcement, Bill Nelson said: 'In the bosom of America there is a yearning for us to explore'. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Nasa has unveiled the next generation space rocket it hopes will take humans on their first missions to Mars.

The long-awaited space launch system will be "the most powerful rocket in history", according to Florida senator Bill Nelson, a former space shuttle astronaut, who announced details at a presentation in Washington DC on Wednesday morning.

But although Nasa plans to launch unmanned test flights by 2017, it has laid out no timetable for its stated goals of landing on an asteroid, reaching Mars, or sending astronauts into deep space for the first time since the Apollo era of the late 1970s.

The announcement, by members of the US Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation committee, returns Nasa to the business of human spaceflight following the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in July.

"This allows Nasa to get out beyond lower earth orbit and start to explore the heavens, which is the job Nasa has always been tasked to do," Nelson said.
"In the bosom of America there is a yearning for us to explore."
Funding for the project, which blends existing Apollo and space shuttle technology with the development of a new crew transportation system, must now be approved in Congress, where it faces a bumpy ride.

Nelson and his fellow advocates did not deliver a long-term estimate, which could reach $62.5bn by 2025, according to some experts who have studied leaked Nasa budget documents.
But he said that the government's financial commitment over the next five to six years would be about $18 billion – $10bn for the rocket, $6bn for the multi-purpose crew vehicle salvaged from the axed Constellation programme, and a further $2bn to be spent on ground support and developing launch facilities at Florida's Kennedy Space Centre.

"We are in an era in which we have to do more with less, and the competition for available dollars will be fierce," Nelson said.

"But what we have is a realistic cost. This is achievable if America is going to have a human spaceflight programme."

The SLS will stand almost twice as high as a fully assembled space shuttle on the launchpad, and places the crew capsule at the top, thus eliminating the problems of falling insulation foam at lift-off causing the kind of catastrophic damage that doomed the shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts in 2003.

It will be powered by five space shuttle engines and, initially at least, two solid rocket boosters taken from the shuttle. Later, Nelson said, Nasa will host a competition for contractors to try to switch the boosters to contain liquid fuels, used by the giant Saturn V rockets of the Apollo era.

The crew vehicle, meanwhile, is the one technology that survives from the Constellation programme shelved by President Barack Obama last year on cost grounds – despite having already eaten $9bn of government money. The project, part of predecessor George Bush's vision for space exploration, was to have returned astronauts to the moon by 2020 and on to Mars a decade later.

Nasa hopes that the SLS project will now allow it to rehire many of the thousands of workers laid off at the conclusion of the 30-year space shuttle programme. Scientists and engineers will be need at Houston's Johnson Space Centre, the rocket assembly plant in Huntsville, Alabama and at Cape Canaveral, Florida, where up to 10,000 lost their jobs at the Kennedy Space Centre.

The announcement also ends a long period of uncertainty for Nasa, in which politicians and many former astronauts criticised the Obama administration for delays in announcing a successor to the space shuttle programme while handing over lower earth orbit operations to private companies such as SpaceX.

Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, said President Obama had set the space agency on "a path to mediocrity".

Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who had accused Obama of "sabotage" over the delayed announcement, said the US back on track.

"This today, I believe, is the commitment that America is making to be sure that we are not going to be the also-rans," she said.

"We are going to continue to be a world leader in finding out the capabilities out there that we have not discovered yet."

Major Charles Bolden, the agency's administrator, praised the announcement as: "A great day for Nasa, and a great day for the nation."

He said: "President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that's exactly what we are doing. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow's explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars."

(From an article in The Guardian.)

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