At the time of its construction, NASA's beautiful Saturn V rocket was considered the biggest machine ever built by man. Now a new bully on the block will assume its position as the largest candle on the launch pad. NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) is being developed to carry intrepid astronauts to the Red Planet and is deemed to be more massive and more powerful than the legendary rocket that took us to the moon.
NASA officials have asserted that the beefiest form of the SLS will be capable of hoisting 143 tons of payload to low-Earth orbit (LEO). But there seems to be a bit of confusion as to who is the more macho lift vehicle. The LEO capacity of the Saturn V moon rocket was calculated at about 154 tons according to a 2006 U.S. Congressional Budget Office. However, these figures were based on flawed calculations that don't fairly tell the entire story.
According to Kimberly Robinson, manager of strategic communications for SLS at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, that 143-ton figure for the SLS refers to "pure payload," whereas the Saturn V could loft 154 tons of "injected mass." The difference between the two numbers is that the Saturn V's capacity includes its third stage and the weight of the fuel contained within it. Robinson maintains that once a more fair comparison is applied, the Saturn V slips down to a LEO payload mass of 135 tons, dropping it slightly below the strength of the mighty new SLS. Sorry, Saturn! Using the old formula, SLS's "injected mass" capacity comes out to 173 tons.
However, the debate is not exact and there are more variables to consider between these two megarockets.
"We're talking about a 130-metric-ton-class vehicle," Robinson said during a presentation with NASA's Future In-Space Operations (FISO) working group. "It doesn't tell you exactly the capability."
Sometime in the mid-2030s, SLS will launch heroic Mars voyagers aboard an Orion crew capsule, a craft also in development. Orion has just one flight on record, an unmanned test to Earth orbit in December 2014 that lifted off atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy, which is currently the most powerful rocket in operation.
SLS is due to make its maiden flight in late 2018 for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), using a Block 1 booster to launch an uncrewed Orion on a weeklong swing around the moon. What do you think of NASA's hulking new rocket, and are you still cheering for the beloved Saturn V?