On September 14, 2011, NASA announced plans to develop the Space Launch System — an exploration-class, advanced heavy-lift launch vehicle (HLV) designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, as well as cargo and equipment to the International Space Station, and ultimately to deep space. The SLS rocket will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system with an initial lift capacity of 70 tonnes evolvable to 130 tonnes. The first flight is targeted for late 2017.
The Mars Society believes that NASA should develop an HLV, because an HLV is a critical system for enabling human exploration beyond LEO. The Space Launch System HLV as currently designed is fine. However, NASA’s human spaceflight program needs a mission.
The proposed plan is to spend $3 billion per year to get the HLV flying by 2017, without anything for it to launch until a putative asteroid mission in 2025. The Mars Society believes that this plan will almost guarantee program cancellation. NASA should not develop an HLV for 4th of July displays. It has to be developed as part of a plan to support a defined mission, with other necessary flight elements developed in parallel.
NASA’s proposed SLS-HLV budget of $3 billion per year is much higher than is actually needed to fund an HLV, and appears to be an effort to spend the former Shuttle program funds for political purposes. If this much funding is available, NASA should use the funds to develop the full spectrum of flight elements needed for human missions beyond LEO in parallel, enabling the near Earth asteroid mission by 2017, with Mars missions to follow a few years later.
NASA needs a deep space mission. From the mission comes the plan; from the plan comes the things necessary for its implementation. NASA needs to fund missions, not things. The mission comes first.
The Steering Committee of the Mars Society ratified this policy statement on NASA’s SLS-HLV by a vote of 12 yes, with 8 abstentions.