Why NASA’s Launch Date for the SLS is a Big Deal

Why NASA’s Launch Date for the SLS is a Big Deal

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is the United States’ next-generation heavy-lift rocket. With its first flight scheduled for 2023, it’s a big deal Launch Date for the SLS — both for space exploration and American industrial competitiveness. That’s because NASA is the only space agency in the world with the resources and capabilities to send humans into deep space. In order to continue our expansion of human presence beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO), we will need an affordable, reliable, and reusable system that can launch every few years at a cost of around $500 million per launch.

The next-generation SLS is designed to accomplish that task in ways previous systems could not. If built, it will be the most powerful rocket in history, capable of lifting (~140 metric tons) and accelerating orbital payloads up to 24 km/h in less than two minutes from liftoff to orbit once in orbit.

That makes it ideal for missions requiring more than one vehicle: a heavy lift launch on one day followed by frequent return trips to Earth on another day.

What’s the Difference Between SLS and Other Rockets?

The SLS will be the first American rocket capable of delivering payloads to orbit greater than 140 metric tons. That’s much heavier than any rocket currently in use, which can lift less than 70 tons. For example, the largest rocket currently in use, the Delta IV Heavy, is capable of lifting slightly more than 70 tons.

Furthermore, SLS will also be the first US rocket capable of lifting humans into space. Currently, no rocket in the world has the capabilities to put humans into orbit and return them safely to Earth.

SLS will be able to lift much more than the smallest rocket currently being used by the U.S., but can also lift humans into space, making it a perfect fit for America’s future in space.

How Long Have We Been Developing the SLS?

The SLS was originally conceived in the late 1990s during the Clinton Administration, when our nation was investing in high-reliability and low-cost programs like the Space Launch System. In fact, the first SLS concept dates back to 1996 when our government was investing in the new and affordable approach to space exploration.

In 2005, the NASA Authorization Act directed NASA to begin developing a heavy-lift rocket to launch astronauts into low-Earth orbit and to construct a Space Launch System by the end of 2015. In 2010, then-NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot noted that we had made great progress, but that we were a couple of years away from launching humans into space with the SLS.

Why Is NASA Building a New Rocket?

A key driver behind developing SLS was the need to explore deeper into space and further into the Solar System. We’ve seen the value of a heavy-lift launch system with the launch of the New Horizons spacecraft, which traveled four billion miles to Pluto in just over 9.5 years using a single launch vehicle.

With an SLS launch, we could do even more exploration and discovery, but we’ll also have to be more clever about it to not overshoot Mars. This is a critical time in NASA’s history of exploration, and the SLS will be an important part of that journey.

With a heavy-lift launch system, we will be able to explore farther into space and do it more cost-effectively. We can increase the exploration tempo of NASA’s program by launching satellites, crew members, and even entire missions to Mars faster than with a smaller launch vehicle.

The 5 Elements of a Successful Space Launch System

The SLS program has developed five key elements that will determine its success. The first is a launch capability. The second is a transportation system to get the rocket to the launch pad. The third is a safe and reliable launch system with a dependable flight history. The fourth is a robust human exploration program to fly humans into space.

And finally, the program needs a clear, long-term strategy. We’ve made incredible progress on all five of these key elements. We have a launch capability with the first SLS flight in 2023. We have a reliable launch system with five test flights ahead of the first crewed flight in 2021.

We have a robust human exploration program with the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), the first crewed flight, and a second crewed mission to fly in the SLS. We also have a clear, long-term strategy with a multiyear funding extension that demonstrates our commitment to this program.

The 5 Elements of a Successful Space Launch System (Continued)

The final key element is a strong partnership between the government and industry. Through a public-private partnership, industry is investing in the program through contracts and subcontracts.

The government, in turn, is investing in the program through the development of the rocket, the launch pads, and even the launch systems. Such an approach has proven successful in the past with NASA’s Space Shuttle Program, which leveraged industry investment through NASA contracts to develop the Shuttle and made NASA’s investments in the program through research and development.

This partnership has enabled the construction of the world’s most complex system and the most powerful rocket ever built. Today, the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, operates the most common launch pad in the world, which was built by the US government for NASA’s Apollo program.


  • Space is a big place. The fact that we, as tiny humans on Earth, have just begun to explore it makes the whole concept of space travel and interstellar missions even more exciting! We are currently in the midst of an unprecedented era of astrophysics research and technological advancement between NASA's Kepler mission and SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launch, 2018 has been an incredible year for space exploration. Despite this progress, there is still so much we don't know about our final frontier. This blog post will take you through some fascinating facts about Mars that may make you change your mind about whether or not to go yourself! Come along with us on a journey into outer space... 

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