NASA's new, supersize rocket system announced this week will ferry people-packed spaceships to the moon, Mars, and perhaps even more exotic destinations in the future—or maybe not.
The Space Launch System (SLS), as NASA calls its new three-rocket configuration, could one day tower 97.5 meters (320 feet) tall—higher than the Statue of Liberty—and haul the equivalent of 12 fully grown elephants into low-Earth orbit.
With the end of the space shuttle program, the new system is meant to eventually carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Module to get humans into space. (Also see "After Space Shuttle, Does U.S. Have a Future in Space?")
Both SLS and an even bigger system to follow would recycle space shuttle technology, including the liquid-fuel systems and twin solid-fuel rocket boosters. However, experts note that the SLS comes from a troubled lineage of "lost" rocket designs that were warped beyond recognition, derailed from original missions, or altogether abandoned.
"SLS may not end up being built at all," said Jeff Foust, an aerospace analyst and editor of the Space Review website. "A lot depends on continuing debt-reduction efforts, changes in the White House and Congress, and the whims of politicians."
The U.S. $18-billion price tag and planned test launch date of 2017 are particularly suspect, Foust said.
"I'm skeptical they'll build it on the cost and schedule they're talking about," he said. "It's rare for any spacecraft this large to come in reasonably on budget and on schedule."