- NASA and Boeing are accelerating the development of the Space Launch System (SLS).
- The SLS, the most powerful rocket ever built, will take astronauts to deep space aboard the Orion space capsule built by Lockheed Martin.
- NASA's stated goal is to send astronauts to Mars in 2030, and public funding could increase soon.
Nobody has walked on the moon since 1972, and the space frenzy of the sixties seems forgotten. But new ambitious deep space missions are again on the horizon, and the tech giants are gearing up to profit.
NASA and Boeing (NYSE:BA) are accelerating production of hardware and flight elements for the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, set to make its debut flight in 2018, the popular online news outlet and discussion forum for space enthusiasts NASA SpaceFlight reports. The Exploration Mission 1 will test most of SLS's systems as it matures toward the ability to carry humans to targets beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
Space news headlines often mention SpaceX, the space company started by Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) founder Elon Musk, which is developing commercial space transportation options and could be headed for an IPO. But, despite Musk's grandiose plans to colonize Mars, SpaceX currently targets LEO missions only, and deep space missions are still the exclusive preserve of NASA and the large aerospace companies that act as NASA's prime contractors.
The SLS has one customer and one mission: to take Americans into deep space.
Congress increased NASA budget to $19.3 billion for 2016, more than NASA had requested, including $2 billion for SLS, CNBC reports. Much of that funding is going to the core rocket built by Boeing. That core - the world's most powerful rocket - includes powerful liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuel tanks, which will give the first version of the rocket 8.5 million pounds of thrust - equivalent to 31 B747s at full power, said a Boeing engineer.
"It is designed for beyond low-Earth orbit exploration with humans," said Frank McCall, the deputy program manager from Boeing who called SLS "a mission that is long overdue." The first unmanned test flight is slated for late 2018. By 2021, the rocket is supposed to carry astronauts aboard the Orion space capsule built by Lockheed Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT).
The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, NASA’s first spacecraft designed for long-duration, crewed deep space exploration, will transport astronauts to interplanetary destinations beyond LEO, such as the moon, asteroids, and eventually Mars, and return them safely back to Earth.
"We’ve started off the year with a key step in our process to get ready for Exploration Mission-1, when together Orion and SLS will travel farther than a spacecraft built for humans has ever traveled," said Mike Sarafin, Exploration Mission 1 manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "This brings us closer to our goal of testing our deep space exploration systems in the proving ground of lunar space before we begin sending astronauts days to weeks from Earth." The Exploration Mission 1, planned for the second half of 2018, will orbit the moon, test critical technologies for future missions, and prepare the way for future crewed missions in the 2020s.
"The first crewed mission will be a mission that goes to the far side of the moon, literally farther than we've ever gone before in manned spacecraft," said NASA SLS manager Patrick Whipps. The Exploration Mission 2, whose launch is planned for 2021, is scheduled to restart crewed planetary exploration beyond LEO. Four astronauts will orbit the moon and perform a practice flyby of a captured asteroid in lunar orbit. The Exploration Mission 3 planned for 2026, also known as Asteroid Redirect Mission, will send four astronauts to an asteroid that had been robotically captured and placed in lunar orbit in late 2025.
All seems to indicate that the next decade will see a new wave of space interest and ambitious missions. That happened in the sixties, and culminated in the first astronauts walking on the moon. This time, the objective will be Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send people to Mars in the 2030s, and for the first time in decades it appears that Congress is listening.
SpaceX has ambitious plans to lead the colonization of Mars with its stealth Mars Colonial Transporter project, and Elon Musk said he intends to unveil the system at the International Astronautical Congress in September 2016. Investors bullish on the upcoming space renaissance should certainly watch for news of a SpaceX IPO. At the same time, it appears that the handful of established aerospace prime contractors, and especially Boeing and Lockheed Martin, are well positioned to profit from increased public funding for crewed deep space missions in the mid term.