When the shuttle program ended, NASA had already decided that private companies and the Russians would take over the job of getting humans and cargo up to the Space Station.
But the agency still wants to send humans deep into space, reaching an asteroid by 2025 and maybe Mars in the 2030's.
It’s now unveiled the new liquid-fueled rocket it plans to build to do that. The rocket looks a lot like the ones from the Apollo moon missions, but it will use some technology from the space shuttle.
Artist concept of SLS launching. (NASA)
On top, it will carry a crew capsule already being developed by Lockheed Martin.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison called it “really a new beginning, that’s what we’ve been looking for since our last shuttle came down, is the new beginning, and I think we have it today.”
The plan is to launch a test flight, with no humans on board, by 2017.
Getting to that point will cost about $3 billion dollars a year, says NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier.
“Yes it takes a fair amount of time. It’s a difficult engineering challenge. But when we complete this engineering challenge, we have a capability to go beyond low-earth orbit like no other nation here on earth.”
Agency officials wouldn’t say how much going to an asteroid or Mars would eventually cost.
First they must build and test the new rocket. Then it will be up to future administrations to decide when and where to go.
Democratic Congressman Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania serves on the House committee that oversees NASA’s budget.
Standing side-by-side with Hutchison at a press conference, he said the U.S. must start construction now if it’s going to stay ahead of countries like China and India.
“We know that we have others who have joined this effort in terms of space exploration. But we intend for American to be number one. And we know as appropriators that we can’t do that on the cheap. It will cost money.”
Hutchison says there is bipartisan support for this plan and she thinks both the President and Congress will vote to fund it.
“Some of the strongest budget cutters on my side of the aisle have put forward massive cuts. But they have not cut the core mission of NASA, because they see that as part of the American spirit and most certainly part of the American economy and America’s national security — where we cannot afford to be in second place.”
The rocket doesn’t have a catchy name yet. For now, it’s just called the “Space Launch System.”
If approved, astronauts could be flying on it as soon as 2021.
From the KUFH Health Science and Technology Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.