Mankind’s Next Giant Leap: Meet The Space Launch System

Space Shuttle Atlantis touches down at the John F. Kennedy Space Centre for the final time
Space Shuttle Atlantis touches down at the John F. Kennedy Space Center for the final time

On the 21st of July, 2011, Space Shuttle Atlantis landed, for the final time, on Runway 15 of the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida at 5:57 am EDT (about 6:57 pm here in Shanghai). Atlantis’s landing marked both the end of its final mission, STS-135, to the International Space Station, and, on a much more significant level, the Space Shuttle program as a whole, concluding the program’s faithful service to the wider scientific community, and indeed, people the world over. As CAPCOM (capsule communicator) Barry Wilmore pointed out in his congratulatory remarks to Mission Commander Chris Ferguson, who had earlier commented that the shuttle had “earned its place in history” after “serving the world for over 30 years”, this marked the end of operations conducted by “this incredible spacecraft” which had “inspired millions around the globe”.

About two months later, on the 14th of September, NASA introduced the next major development in American spaceflight, a craft dubbed the “Space Launch System” (SLS), which was essentially a consolidation of the previously planned Ares I and IV craft into a singular craft for the use of cargo and crew. Unlike the Space Shuttle before it, the SLS is a heavy launch vehicle than an orbiter, sharing more similarities with the Saturn V launch vehicle, which helped send the Apollo Lunar Module escape the Earth’s gravitational influence on its way to the surface of the Moon, than the Space Shuttle, which saw most of its use in orbit around the Earth, as can be seen by the diagram below:

A diagram displaying the configuration of the Space Launch System
A diagram displaying the configuration of the Space Launch System

Unlike the Saturn V, however as explained by this article from NASA’s website, the SLS will serve as the launch vehicle for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), the craft that will carry astronauts and essential equipment on missions to celestial bodies beyond the distance of the Moon, with a yet-unspecified near-Earth asteroid and eventually, Mars, being marked as potential destinations. As a result of these lofty expectations, the SLS has thus been tooled to eventually be a significantly more powerful launch vehicle than the Saturn V, effectively being a bigger, badder version of the launch vehicle that helped put men on the moon. As this infographic at Space.com shows, the initial operational version of the launcher that will be commissioned for spaceflight in 2017 will be used primarily for missions in low-Earth orbit and deep space around Earth, and will already provide 0.4 million more kilograms of thrust than the Saturn V. This version of the SLS will have 3.8 million kg of thrust provided at launch by five RS-25D/E engines (modified versions of the Shuttle’s main engines) which provide power through the combustion of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, and by two additional solid-fuel boosters, which are larger, longer versions of the shuttle’s boosters due to these boosters carrying more fuel (an aluminum perchlorate composite mixture) for combustion upon launch. The final operational version of the SLS will have 4.2 million kg of thrust at launch (0.8 million kg more than the Saturn V), with the further 0.4 million kg of thrust in comparison to the initial version being provided by an additional liquid-fuel (liquid hydrogen and oxygen) J-2X engine, derived from the engines used on the Saturn V itself. This final configuration, which currently does not have a defined period of operation, will be the launch vehicle used in the missions to near-Earth asteroids and Mars, the latter of which is slated to be conducted by 2030.

There are a number of implications to the development of the SLS, both to me personally and on a wider scope. In the grand scheme of things, the SLS provides the means for NASA to take the next great leap into the manned exploration of the Solar System, having the capacity to potentially take man far beyond the orbit of the Earth to places yet uncharted. The manned exploration of Mars will mark the next significant milestone in mankind’s exploration of the cosmos, as it will show that we do indeed have the capacity to visit worlds far beyond the influence of our planet and return. This will perhaps pave the way for the eventual extraterrestrial survival of the human race via the establishment of colonies on other worlds than the Earth some day, making a dream of many science-fiction fans everywhere a reality.

An artists depiction of the SLSs potential destinations
An artist's depiction of the SLS's potential destinations

On a personal level, the thought that I could actually be seeing a man set foot on Mars in person before the end of the century as a result of the SLS is a prospect that I will undoubtedly be looking forward to experiencing. While I wasn’t alive (as far as I know, anyway) to witness the Moon landing in 1969, the exhilaration, awe and indeed relief that I recall seeing on long-time CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite’s face while watching archival footage of the landing on Youtube is an image that ingrained itself into my brain, for to me, it represents a feeling I someday hope to experience too. It was a childhood dream of mine to someday work for NASA and help with a manned mission to Mars. A dream that was fueled by many hours playing with a Lego “Mission to Mars” playset, and a dream that, due to many a struggle with the evil forces of Algebra 2/Trig, was ultimately laid to rest. While it was perhaps not my calling to work in the aeronautics industry, this childhood dream of mine instilled in me an appreciation of the stars above, and indeed, for the innovation and creativity of the men and women involved in the name of advancing the field of astronomy. I, for the past 13 or 14 years of my life, have been continually amazed by NASA and its achievements, which they have done on an approximate annual budget of around 17 billion USD as of 2007, a whopping 0.58% according to this article at The Space Review. The fact that this agency stands before us today with the potential means of sending man farther from home to other, more distant worlds in our Solar System in the name of advancing our knowledge of the cosmos and perhaps, one day ensuring the long-term survival of our race on what is essentially a pittance of an annual budget, is something that should not be understated. Take a moment and think about this, just what could NASA achieve with a higher allocation of the federal budget?

Citations:

Braukus, Michael, J.D. Harrington, and Josh Byerly. “NASA – NASA Announces Key Decision For Next Deep Space Transportation System.” National Aeronautics and Space Association, 24 May 2011. Web. 3 Nov 2011. <http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/may/HQ_11-164_MPCV_Decision.html>.

Brooks, Jeff. “The Space Review: Putting NASA’s budget in perspective.” The Space Review: essays and commentary about the final frontier. The Space Review, 02 Jul 2007. Web. 3 Nov 2011. <http://www.thespacereview.com/article/898/1>.

Tate, Karl. “Space Launch System: NASA’s Giant Rocket Explained (Infographic).” Space.com. N.p., 14 Sep 2011. Web. 3 Nov 2011. <http://www.space.com/12957-nasa-giant-rocket-space-launch-system-infographic.html>.

Weaver, David, Michael Braukus, J.D. Harrington, and Dan Kanigan. “NASA – NASA Announces Design for New Deep Space Exploration System.” National Aeronautics and Space Association, 14 Sep 2011. Web. 3 Nov 2011. <http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/sls/sls1.html>.

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