Video: NASA unveils new powerful rocket

  1. Closed captioning of: NASA unveils new powerful rocket

    >> has unveiled the design of its next generation rocket. it's a dreadnaut, the most powerful ever to be built. if built it will have enough thrust to power all the way to mars which may be easier than getting funding from congress. without a new space program , u.s. astronauts now rely on the russians for a ride into space.

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/14/2011 9:06:39 PM ET 2011-09-15T01:06:39

To soar far away from Earth and even on to Mars, NASA has dreamed up the world's most powerful rocket, a behemoth that borrows from the workhorse liquid-fuel rockets that sent Apollo missions into space four decades ago.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and several members of Congress joined Wednesday in unveiling the Obama administration's much-delayed general plans for its rocket design, called the Space Launch System. It will begin unmanned test flights in six years, and carry astronauts in a capsule on top in a decade.

"This is a great day for NASA, I think, for NASA and the nation," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at a U.S. Senate news conference called to unveil the concept.

The rocket-building effort is projected to cost $18 billion through 2017, and about $35 billion by the time it carries astronauts beyond Earth orbit.

Two of the senators who worked with NASA and the White House on the plan, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson and Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, said they were pleased by the plan and signaled that Congress would give its assent.

"I believe we really are going forward now, all as one, with one goal," Hutchison told journalists. She said the plan was "a commitment that NASA — NASA — is going to lead the pack."

Closer to Apollo
The size, shape and potentially heavier reliance on liquid fuel as opposed to solid rocket boosters is much closer to Apollo than the recently retired space shuttles, which were winged, reusable ships that sat on top of a giant liquid-fuel tank, with twin solid rocket boosters providing most of the power. It's also a shift in emphasis from the moon-based, solid-rocket-oriented plans proposed by the George W. Bush administration.

"It's back to the future with a reliable liquid technology," said Stanford University professor Scott Hubbard, a former NASA senior manager who was on the board that investigated the space shuttle Columbia's loss in 2003.

NASA figures it will be building and launching about one rocket a year for about 15 years or more in the 2020s and 2030s, according to senior administration officials who spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in advance of Wednesday's announcement.

The idea is to launch its first unmanned test flight in 2017, with the first crew flying in 2021 and astronauts heading to a nearby asteroid in 2025, the officials said. From there, NASA hopes to send the rocket and astronauts to Mars — at first just to circle, but then later landing on the Red Planet — in the 2030s.

At first the rockets will be able to lift at least 70 metric tons (77 U.S. tons) of payload, which would include the six-person Orion multipurpose crew vehicle and more. Eventually it will be able to carry at least 130 metric tons (143 U.S. tons) into space, maybe even more. In comparison, the long-dormant Saturn V booster that sent humans to the moon was able to lift 120 metric tons (132 U.S. tons).

"It's fair to call this the most powerful rocket built," Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told journalists. He said potential contractors would gather with NASA officials to discuss the project at an "industry day" on Sept. 29.

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The plans dwarf the rumbling liftoff power of the space shuttle, which could haul just 27 U.S. tons. The biggest current unmanned rocket can carry about 25 tons.

The size plans elicited an amazed "good grief" from Hubbard, who said it would limit how often they could be built or launched. Unlike the reusable shuttle, these rockets are mostly one-and-done, with new ones built for every launch.

Some of the design elements, the deadline and the requirement for such a rocket were dictated by Congress.

While the recently retired space shuttle's main engines were fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, it was primarily powered into orbit by solid rockets. Solid rocket boosters were designed to be cheaper, but a booster flaw caused the fatal space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986. The biggest drawback was that solid rockets can't be stopped once they are lit; liquid ones can.

The new plan is to use a giant rocket powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Apollo, Gemini and Mercury flew into space on liquid rockets, and liquids fuel most of the world's unmanned commercial rockets. Russia's Soyuz rocket is liquid-fueled, too.

During its initial test flights the rocket will use solid rocket boosters designed for the shuttle strapped on its outside, and will have three shuttle main engines powering it on the inside. But soon after that, the rocket would be built with five main engines, and the solid rocket boosters would be replaced with new-technology boosters that may be either liquid or solid.

"We can go compete that and get the best value" for the resulting launch system, Gerstenmaier said.

Big questions over cost
NASA figures it will spend about $3 billion a year on the plan, with development costs adding up to around $35 billion, officials said.

Nelson's office said the cost of getting the rocket ready for its first unmanned flight in 2017 would amount to $18 billion, with $10 billion of that going to the rocket, $6 billion to the Orion capsule and $2 billion to launch pad construction at Kennedy Space Center.

"What we have here now are the realistic costs," Nelson said in a statement.

Gerstenmaier said follow-on development and test flights after 2017 would add to the $18 billion figure — but he declined to be specific on the spending levels, other than to say that $3 billion a year was a rough estimate. Gerstenmaier told msnbc.com that the spending levels would be in line with the plan already in place for the coming years.

"This is accommodated in our current NASA budget," he said.

The key financial part of this arrangement is that NASA hopes to save money by turning over the launching of astronauts to the International Space Station, which orbits Earth, to private companies and just rent spaces for astronauts like a giant taxi service. NASA would then spend the money on leaving Earth's orbit and the Earth-moon system.

The project could give a powerful boost to the aerospace workforce employed by NASA and its contractors, which have ordered thousands of layoffs due to the end of the 30-year space shuttle program this summer.

But in his interview with AP, Hubbard worried that NASA has a history of spending way more than initially proposed — the space shuttle cost about twice what it was supposed to — and that the rocket development effort could drain money from other NASA missions. Additional money would have to be spent developing other hardware for human exploration, such as landers and habitats.

Sore point for Congress
Wednesday's unveiling of the new rocket concept came after weeks of criticism from members of Congress, who had accused the Obama administration of trying to sabotage U.S. human spaceflight by producing inflated cost estimates for the program and delaying the release of its plan.

Hutchison acknowledged that there were frictions between Capitol Hill and the White House but indicated that policymakers had smoothed over their differences.

"This is a day that we have been looking forward to for a long time," she said. "It's no secret that we had hoped it would be sooner."

Three leading House Republicans — Ralph Hall of Texas, Steven Palazzo of Mississippi and Frank Wolf of Virginia — issued a statement expressing irritation that it took so long for the White House to give its go-ahead to the rocket plan.

“It is our sincere hope that today’s announcement signals a breakthrough with this president that will help alleviate the uncertainty that has plagued our aerospace industrial base and wreaked havoc on its employees," they said. "We will not judge today’s announcement by the administration’s words, but by their deeds and actions in the coming months and years.”

This report includes information from The Associated Press' Seth Borenstein and msnbc.com's Alan Boyle.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Explainer: Out-of-this-world destinations

  • NASA

    We are headed to Mars ... eventually. But first we need the rocket technology and human spaceflight savvy to get us there safely and efficiently. And the best way to do that is to visit places such as asteroids, our moon, a Martian moon and even no man's lands in space called "Lagrange points," NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained during the unveiling of the agency's revised vision for space exploration.

    The vision shifts focus away from a return to the moon as part of a steppingstone to Mars in favor of what experts call a "flexible path" to space exploration, pushing humans ever deeper into the cosmos.

    Click the "Next" label to check out six other potential destinations astronauts may visit in the years and decades to come en route to Mars.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lessons to learn on the space station

    NASA

    The cooperation required to build and maintain the International Space Station will be a key to propelling humans on to Mars, according to Louis Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society. The society is a space advocacy organization that supports the flexible path to space exploration. In fact, the space station itself could be a training ground for Mars-bound astronauts.

    Astronauts can spend ever longer blocks of time on the station to gain experience in long-duration flights, for example. They could also practice extravehicular activities akin to those expected on a Mars mission, Friedman noted.

  • Lunar orbit, a test of new technology

    NASA

    Lunar orbit, too, is a familiar destination for human spaceflight, but a return to the familiar with new technology would allow astronauts to test the engineering of systems designed to go deeper into space, according to Friedman.

    A return to the moon is still in the cards on the flexible path, but going to lunar orbit first defers the cost of developing the landing and surface systems needed to get in and out of the lunar gravity well, according to experts.

    The famous "Earthrise" image shown here was made in 1968 during Apollo 8, the first human voyage to orbit the moon.

  • Stable no man's lands in space

    NASA / WMAP Science Team

    There are places in space where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the moon, or Earth and the sun, have a balancing effect on a third body in orbit. Those five locations, known as Lagrange points, could offer relatively stable parking spots for astronomical facilities such as space telescopes or satellites. Human spaceflights to these points would allow astronauts to service these instruments.

    In addition, space experts believe a trip to a Lagrange point could serve as a training mission for astronauts headed to points deeper in space, such as an asteroid. Nevertheless, reaching a Lagrange point would be more of a technical achievement than a scientific achievement, according to Friedman. "It is an empty spot in space," he said.

  • Visit an asteroid near you?

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Dan Durda  /  FIAAA

    The first stop astronauts may make in interplanetary space is one of the asteroids that cross near Earth's orbit. Scientists have a keen interest in the space rocks because of the threat that one of them could strike Earth with devastating consequences. An asteroid mission would allow scientists to better understand what makes the rocks tick, and thus how to best divert one that threatens to smack our planet.

    Humans have also never been to an asteroid, which would make such a visit an exciting first, noted Friedman. "Imagine how interesting it will be to see an astronaut step out of a spacecraft and down onto an asteroid and perform scientific experiments," he said. What's more, since asteroids have almost no gravity, an asteroid encounter would be like docking with the space station, which doesn't require a heavy-lift rocket for the return. That makes an asteroid a potentially less expensive destination than the surface of the moon.

  • Back to the moon?

    NASA via Getty Images

    The moon-Mars path of human space exploration originally envisioned the moon as a training ground for a mission to the Red Planet. While the flexible-path strategy broadens the training field, the moon remains a candidate destination, according to NASA.

    Several other nations also have the moon's surface in their sights, including Japan, India and China. Some experts fear the dedicated lunar programs of these nations will eventually leave the United States in the dust as it focuses on an ambiguous flexible path.

    Friedman, of The Planetary Society, said NASA should support the lunar programs of Japan, India and China as part of team building for an international Mars mission, but sees no reason for NASA to focus on the moon. "We've done that already and that was Apollo," he said.

  • Martian moon a final pit stop?

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA

    Before astronauts go all the way to Mars, there's reason to make a final stop at one of its moons, Phobos or Deimos. The two moons are less than 20 miles across at their widest, which means landing on them would be less expensive than the Red Planet itself.

    Friedman used to consider a mission to a Martian moon nonsensical - akin to going to the base camp of Mount Everest instead of going to the top of the mountain. "I've now turned myself around on that, because you do go to the base camp and you do actually conduct training activities there before you attempt the summit," he said.

    "By all means go there," he added. "Test out your rendezvous and docking at Mars, conduct your three-year, round-trip mission, maybe tele-operate some rovers of the surface (of Mars). That will all be interesting and then the next mission will finally go down to the surface."

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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