Fine Structure

NASA Announces Space Launch System

Today NASA announced its next major space program called the Space Launch System. It's a evolution of the Constellation project that barely began before it was shut down, arguably for not being ambitious enough. Does SLS go farther, literally and figuratively? Is that far enough?

The SLS is supposed to be our way out of Low Earth Orbit. It's a heavy lift rocket in the style of the Saturn V with two solid boosters attached to the sides. If you thought the Saturn V was the most powerful rocket ever (and it was), you'll be impressed by the lift capacity of this rocket. The Saturn V could lift 45 metric tons to Trans Lunar Injection (the farthest it was designed for, really) while the SLS claims an initial lift of 70 metric tons, expandable to 140 (!). The short NASA announcement page doesn't explain where those lift numbers are for (LEO? TLI? 100m above sea level?) which brings me to my next point...

Unfortunately, the SLS doesn't have a definitive purpose. It's not designed to do any one amazing thing, it's designed to be an all-purpose way to get from Earth to as low as the ISS and as far as Mars. As with all things, a more general purpose design means a less functional design for each purpose individually. This may be a good design for the next few years of space flight but it's not going to make any amazing leaps.

Furthermore, the announcement of the SLS is knee deep in members of Congress who claim to have "saved" some shuttle jobs for their constituents in the SLS project. Only time will tell what this means for the efficiency of building and launching the SLS, but it's not usually a good sign. ]