SLS, short for Space Launch System, is going to be NASA’s super heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle. It has under development since its announcement in 2011. With plans to launch in 2021, and set to be used for NASA’s Artemis program to send the next man and the first woman to the moon, it’s success is of paramount importance to NASA.
Super heavy launch vehicles are called so as they can lift upwards of 50 tonnes into orbit and put probes into direct orbits without using time consuming gravity assists. Historically there have been only 5 super heavy launch vehicles that’d been designed, and only 4 of those ever took flight.
Super heavy rockets might be the most powerful rockets ever built but they sure aren’t the most efficient, so the question does arise, why build a rocket that will be dumped into the ocean when it is possible to land the boosters back for reuse like SpaceX, phenomenally reducing launch costs?
The question can only be answered when we put ourselves in NASA’s shoes. It being government funded, has to do things quite differently than a privately funded company, and the biggest thing they can’t really do? Take phenomenal risks. When building something as massive, complex and ambitious as the SLS, every minor detail needs to be accounted for as NASA uses contractors to build their rockets, leaving them with no margin for error. And the fact that there are dozens of contractors and thousands of government employees all relying on each other for their parts to be completed on time just compounds the already nonexistent margin of error.
NASA doesn’t want to take any chances, because a cut in it’s already extremely low budget wouldn’t be good. The Space Shuttle after all, was cancelled by Congress due to it’s unreliable nature, causing America to loose it’s ability to launch astronauts into space for 9 years, until recently, when Bob Behnken and Douglas Hurley blasted off to space aboard SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule. Hence, the main focus behind SLS wasn’t designing a rocket that is reusable, it was designing a rocket that was reliable and would ensure long term funding, a goal that will be fulfilled after NASA proves SLS’s reliability post the upcoming launches.
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