NASA's Mars rocket to launch on maiden voyage in 2018

The world's most powerful rocket, designed to carry humans to Mars, is scheduled for a test launch in 2018.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
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Artist's concept of the SLS MKI's maiden voyage. NASA/MSFC

NASA's deep-space rocket -- the Space Launch System -- is the most powerful to date, designed to ferry humans to Mars. Scheduled to launch for the first time in 2018, it's the agency's first heavy-lift launch vehicle in over 40 years, and hopefully marks the first step for a manned Mars mission in the 2030s.

The rocket, which has been in development for three years, was officially approved by the space agency on August 27, which means a full commitment to the program.

Artist's concept of SLS MKI on the launchpad. NASA/MSFC

"We are on a journey of scientific and human exploration that leads to Mars," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "And we're firmly committed to building the launch vehicle and other supporting systems that will take us on that journey."

The SLS will carry the Orion spacecraft, which in turn will carry the Mars explorers. For its first test flight, the SLS will be configured with a 70-metric-ton lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion craft beyond low-Earth orbit. The final version of the rocket is slated for a lift capacity of 130 metric tons, which will enable missions to destinations as far as Mars.

"Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program, and we owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right," said Associate Administrator and review process overseer Robert Lightfoot. "After rigorous review, we're committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s -- and we're going to stand behind that commitment."

The Orion spacecraft is scheduled for an uncrewed test flight of its own on December 4 of this year, attached to a Delta IV Heavy rocket. This flight, Exploration Test Flight 1, will test several of the Orion's key systems, including avionics, heat shielding and parachutes.

"We are keeping each part of the program -- the rocket, ground systems, and Orion -- moving at its best possible speed toward the first integrated test launch," said NASA Exploration Systems Development director Bill Hill. "We are on a solid path toward an integrated mission and making progress in all three programs every day."

The first of the three SLS rockets is projected to cost $7.021 billion, and the entire project around $12 billion.