NASA is continuing to take steps towards building its Space Launch System (SLS), the mammoth rocket that promises to surpass the Saturn V for size and power. Last week, the agency began looking at ways to make it even bigger, specifically its cargo capacity. In a Request for Information (RFI) published last Thursday, the agency put out a call for information on possible payload adapters and fairings already available in commercial industry to use with the SLS.
The SLS is poised to be an excellent workhorse for future missions, in large part because it’s so flexible. The initial Block 1 and Block 1A versions will be able to lift 70 metric tons into Earth orbit and use a small “kick” stage to punt the payload to further destinations. Later incarnations of the SLS – the “evolved” rocket – will be able to lift 130 metric tons into orbit. All three versions will be able to carry crews or cargo, depending on a mission’s demands, to destinations like the Moon, Mars, and even LaGrange points.
The payload configuration is what NASA is hoping to increase, though for now the agency is just looking. “This is a no-cost examination of the aerospace landscape to identify existing components that could augment the rocket’s architecture as we move beyond the initial Orion configuration,” said Todd May, the SLS program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. “SLS can make challenging human and science missions possible in large part because of the unprecedented size of the payload it can lift. We are hopeful industry may offer some innovative and affordable ideas about alternative fairing and adapter options.”
The large payload fairing already built into SLS’s design is set to reduce design complexity. The rocket’s high performance and powerful thrust should decrease travel time to faraway destinations. These factors should, by extension, lower the overall cost and risk associated with each mission.
But for the time being this is only a projection. SLS is still on paper, making it vulnerable to budget cuts and fickle political changes. But it’s on its way. On the plus side, whatever your political leaning, Obama’s reelection might see SLS move forward faster than if NASA were hit with a change in administration at this point in the rocket’s development. The first launch is currently set for some time in 2017, and if things are going to adhere to this schedule no change to the powers that be could be a good thing.
SLS is broken into parts. NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland is responsible for payload fairing development and is managing this latest Request for Information for increased payload adapters and farings. The Marshall Spaceflight Centre manages the SLS Program on the whole for NASA and it will, hopefully sooner rather than later, launch from NASA’s Kennedy Spaceflight Center in Florida.
For more information: SLS