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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

NASA’s Plan for a Mega Rocket

Air Date: Week of

The new NASA rocket program, called the Space Launch System, is scheduled to take flight for the first time in 2017. The rocket will be the biggest and most powerful on the planet. Todd May, Program Manager for the NASA project, tells host Bruce Gellerman about plans to send a space crew back to the moon, to mars, and into deep space for exploration.


GELLERMAN: NASA is thinking big - really big. The American Space Agency has
just unveiled the design for a super-sized rocket. The plan is to use the new, powerful
Space Launch System to propel people and payloads far into space on voyages back to
the moon and beyond.

Todd May is Program Manager of NASA's Space Launch System. Mr. May, welcome to
Living on Earth.

MAY: Hey, Bruce, glad to be here with you here today.

GELLERMAN: So, how big is this new rocket?

MAY: The initial capability is 70 metric tons to low earth orbit, about twice the payload
capability of the previous shuttle.

GELLERMAN: So, lets see, that’s about 140,000 lbs; I'm just doing a back of the
envelope calculation.

MAY: That’s right. That’s the equivalent of maybe nine school busses or twelve
elephants - a fairly large payload capability.

GELLERMAN: So, compare that to, say, the Saturn Five, which was the biggest rocket
on the planet before - that’s the one that took us to the moon - how big is it compared to

MAY: The initial capability actually has about ten percent more thrust off of the pad
than the Saturn Five did. The evolved capability, somewhat more than that.

GELLERMAN: Well the Space Launch System - that’s the name of this new rocket,

MAY: That’s correct, sir.

GELERMAN: Not… it’s not poetic there though. I gotta tell you.

MAY: (LAUGHS). Maybe you guys can name…something…give it something a little
better. We NASA engineers can sometimes be a little geeky, you know?

GELLERMAN: (LAUGHS) - I guess so! So, why do we need something this big?
Where are we going?

MAY: Well, to the future, Bruce. We think great nations explore, and the United
States is worthy of a great rocket to explore. One of the ways to think about is, in this
administration, we think of it as a capability driven architecture where you initially
develop capability and then you add additional capability as you decide you want to go
other places.

Artist concept of future destinations. (Credit: NASA)

But this heavy-lift rocket it will take a crew beyond low earth orbit to just about any
destination you want it to go - even to Mars, asteroids. It also opens up deep exploration
for science missions - say, to the outer solar system- with direct flights.

GELLERMAN: And we are gonna put people onboard this thing, huh?

MAY: You can! That’s right. You can also take people, you can take cargo.

GELLERMAN: Boosting something this big into space probably costs big bucks - what
are we talking about here?

MAY: Uh, Bruce, if you think about the total program - we are living with a budget
that’s about three billion a year including what we call the multi-purpose crew vehicle,
which is the actual capsule that carries the crew to space and back home safely. And, the
ground systems at Kennedy Space Center.

GELLERMAN: You got to get this thing off the ground with Congress- what are they
saying to you? You’re saying rocket, they’re saying jobs?

MAY: (CHUCKLES). Yeah, so, we have many stakeholders out there, and we balance
the various stakeholders. I think both Congress and the Administration are both solidly

behind this rocket as you saw in the appropriations last year and in the announcement
today from the Administrator.

GELLERMAN: So, when is the launch date going to be?

MAY: Today we are targeting by the end of 2017, actually, the month of December.

GELLERMAN: Wow, that’s not very far off, you’ve got to really do a lot of work here!

MAY: Uh, we sure do, sir. We’ll be working hard to get that core designed, developed,
tested, and ready to fly.

GELLERMAN: Boy, would you like to be aboard on one of these missions?

MAY: Oh sure! I’ve thought about that since I was a child - I’m getting a little old for
that, though, myself.

GELLERMAN: Mr. May, thank you so much - and good luck!

MAY: Thank you, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Todd May is Program Manager of NASA's new rocket, they call the
Space Launch System, but there’s gotta be somebody out there that has a better name.
So, ignite your imagination, and land your suggestions on our Facebook page - PRI’s
Living on Earth.



NASA page on Space Launch System


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