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On Wednesday NASA officials announced they had completed a rigorous review of the Space Launch System (SLS) and approved the program for development. No other exploration class vehicle has achieved this level of commitment since the agency built the space shuttle.

“We are on a journey of scientific and human exploration that leads to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “And we’re firmly committed to building the launch vehicle and other supporting systems that will take us on that journey.”

 

What is the Space Launch System?

Announced on September 14, 2011, NASA describes the SLS as a “heavy-lift, exploration class rocket.” It is being developed alongside the Orion spacecraft, which is being built by Lockheed Martin for the purpose of crewed missions to the Moon, asteroids and Mars. It follows the cancellation of the Constellation Program, and is to replace the retired Space Shuttle.

The first test flight of the SLS will carry an unmanned Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit. This test flight will be configured for a 70-metric-ton lift capacity. In its most powerful configuration SLS will provide 130 metric tons, making it the world’s most powerful rocket. This configuration will allow missions even farther into our solar system, including destinations such as an asteroid and Mars.

 

Mission to Mars

In 2010 President Obama outlined plans for the US space program with the goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by 2030. A number of other nations and organisations have long-term plans to send humans to Mars but it is the SLS that could finally achieve it.

“Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program, and we owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right,” said Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who oversaw the review process. “After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment.”