Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bigger than Saturn, at last

THE history of manned space flight since the end of America's moon missions in 1973 can be summed up by a single fact: nearly half a century after its maiden flight in 1967, the Saturn V, the immense, building-sized rocket that powered the Apollo programme, remains the most powerful space vehicle ever flown. After 1973 the space-faring nations were content to confine themselves to low earth orbit. With no appetite to return to the moon, let alone venture any farther afield (at least among the politicians who control the purse strings), comparably powerful rockets have simply not been needed.

Over the past few years, though, manned space exploration has come back onto the agenda. China has announced a lunar programme of its own. In 2005 George Bush announced a plan to send Americas back to the moon as well, with a view to building a permanent base there as a precusor to trips further afield. Last year, Barack Obama cancelled that plan, instead instructing America's space agency to send a manned mission to an asteroid as a prelude to a flight to Mars, pencilled in for some time in the 2030s.

Sending astronauts into the solar system would require a beefier rocket than any currently operating. On September 14th NASA unveiled its design for just such a rocket. Dubbed the "Space Launch System" (one might think that NASA's legion of PR people might have come up with a less quotidian name), the $18 billion rocket is a mish-mash of previous designs that will eventually be able to loft 130 tons into low-earth orbit, compared with 119 for the Saturn V.
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