Science, Tech & Environment

NASA building the most powerful rocket on Earth

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Artist concept of the Space Launch System. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Story by Living on Earth. Listen to audio above for full interview.

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NASA has just unveiled the design for a super-sized rocket. The plan is to use the new, powerful Space Launch System (SLS) to propel people and payloads far into space on voyages back to the moon and beyond. The program, called Space Launch System, doesn't have the most romantic name, but it would be a breakthrough for space travel.

"The initial capability is 70 metric tons to low earth orbit, about twice the payload capability of the previous shuttle," Todd May, Program Manager of NASA's Space Launch System, told PRI's Living on Earth. "That’s the equivalent of maybe nine school busses or twelve elephants -- a fairly large payload capability."

"This heavy-lift rocket it will take a crew beyond low earth orbit to just about any destination you want it to go -- even to Mars, asteroids," according to May. It can carry both people and payloads. "It also opens up deep exploration for science missions," he says, "say, to the outer solar system, with direct flights."

Building the new rocket isn't free -- it will cost about $3 billion per year, May says. But even with a fiscal crisis in Washington, May believes, "both Congress and the administration are both solidly behind this rocket."

The new rocket would also be worth the expense, according to May. "We think great nations explore, and the United States is worthy of a great rocket to explore," he says. "One of the ways to think about is, in this administration, we think of it as a capability driven architecture where you initially develop capability and then you add additional capability as you decide you want to go other places."

NASA expects the new rocket to be ready for launch by December of 2017.

Read the full transcript on the Living on Earth website.

View NASA concept video of the Space Launch System:

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Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit.

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