Mars: NASA Mega Rocket On Track

By Pierre Dumont , Apr 16, 2013 11:43 AM EDT

NASA is ahead of schedule in developing its largest, most powerful rocket to date, a primary contractor stated on Wednesday April 10.

The Space Launch System, which stands at 384 feet tall, is being developed to send astronauts to asteroids and Mars. An initial test flight is scheduled for 2017, when the SLS will launch the unmanned Orion capsule past the moon. This is planned to be followed by a manned mission in 2021.

The Boeing Co. is building the rocket's core stage for NASA and officials have indicated that the company and NASA are currently running on schedule.

"We're on budget, ahead of schedule," Boeing's Vice President and General Manager of Space Exploration John Elbon told reporters at the 29th annual National Space Symposium. "There's incredible progress going on with that rocket."

The development team was already five months ahead of schedule as of December 2012, when the rocket passed preliminary design review. The review certified that the rocket design meets certain requirements. A final technical review is scheduled for 2014.

The SLS uses solid rocket boosters based on the design of the space shuttle and includes an upper stage from United Launch Alliance's Delta 4 rocket. In time, however, the rocket will need to be augmented to carry greater weight than originally intended. The mission to Mars will be complex, involving multiple steps, and even NASA isn't sure exactly how it will be played out.

"The exploration program hasn't been crisply defined," Elbon said. "The real focus has been on developing capabilities. I think, personally, it would be helpful if we had a mission that was clearly defined that would allow us to take these capabilities — to tailor them, define them, shape them for that mission."

But regardless of how NASA gets to Mars, what's important for the administration, and for Boeing, is that it gets there.

"This is something that happened with ISS," Director of ISS Utilization and Exploration Mike Raftery said. "It needs to happen with Mars, too."

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