Space Launch System

The development of NASA's biggest, most powerful rocket yet is running ahead of schedule and on budget. The towering Space Launch System (SLS) is a 384-foot (117 meters) behemoth intended to launch astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit to deep-space asteroids and Mars. The vehicle is slated to make its first test flight in 2017, when it will launch an unmanned Orion capsule (also in development) beyond the moon. At the end of December 2012 — five months ahead of schedule — the team passed a milestone called preliminary design review, which certified that the rocket design meets its requirements within acceptable risk parameters. Its final technical review, called critical design review, is scheduled for 2014. The booster, in its initial configuration, uses solid rocket boosters based on the space shuttle's design, with an upper stage taken from United Launch Alliance's well-tried Delta 4 rocket. Eventually, the SLS will have to be outfitted to carry heavier loads than its initial configuration can lift. It must carry the crew and equipment needed for a mission to Mars — which will be a multistep, complex operation. What those steps will be, exactly, is yet to be settled by NASA.

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