Since NASA cancelled the Space Shuttle program in 2011, the United States has been left with no craft currently able to take humans into orbit. As such they are relying on Russian craft in order to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. However, they finally have both the funding and the political will to get back into space - and they plant to return in a big way.
The United State’s return to space will come in the form of the Space Launch System (SLS). This vehicle, built from the ground up with new technologies, will be the biggest rocket ever to be launched into space. With height of 385ft and a the capability to launch up to 130T of cargo into space, it is greater in size than even the Saturn V rocket that first took humans to the Moon.
Now, the SLS has passed its critical design review phase and plans are in place for a series of test flights. The first of the these will be coming in late 2017 or 2018 (depending on levels of funding) and will send an unmanned craft on a mission around the Moon and then back to Earth, in order to test critical components. This will then be followed by a much more ambitious manned launch which will send astronauts on a mission to land on a captured asteroid orbiting the Earth.
NASA sees the SLS as a critical component of their future plans
Aside from these test missions, NASA sees the SLS as a critical component of their future plans. Given the rocket’s huge lifting mass, they believe that it will be possible to use it for the construction of spacecraft that could build a base on the Moon, or even send the first astronauts to Mars.
Alongside this, NASA is also aggressively pursuing its Commercial Crew Development schedule, which pits several private spaceflight companies against each other in a competition to develop new space launch vehicles. Currently, SpaceX’s Dragon craft is the lead contender to receive the next round of funding and contracts, but 2 other companies are also presenting their own innovative designs.
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