NASA’s years-long project to build its most-powerful rocket yet for missions to the moon, asteroids, Mars and other deep-space destinations is making its first steps toward the launch pad.
The agency just completed a deal with Boeing to begin building the Space Launch System’s $2.8 billion-core stage and avionics system, according to Engadget. The stage — which makes up the majority of a rocket’s middle-body and houses fuel — recently passed a crucial inspection conducted by 11 experts examining 3,000 parts.
Passing the critical design review is a sign that “America’s next great rocket is mature enough for production,” according to NASA.
Boeing’s SLS core stage will stand 200-feet high and hold the engines’ cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.
The last NASA rocket to pass such a test was the biggest and most-powerful the agency has built to date — the Saturn V, which propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon and back six times through the late ’60s and ’70s.
NASA plans to spend $6.8 billion between 2014 and 2018 on the SLS, with hopes of a launch-ready prototype for an unmanned test flight in 2017. (RELATED: NASA: By 2017 Astronauts Will Launch From America, Not Russia)
“The SLS program team completed the core stage critical design review ahead of schedule and continues to make excellent progress towards delivering the rocket to the launch pad,” SLS Program Manager Todd May said on behalf of NASA. “Our entire prime contractor and government team has been working full-steam on this program since its inception.”
The first SLS launch will boast a 77-ton lift capacity and send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit for testing. Upon completion, SLS will be capable of an “unprecedented lift capability” of 143 tons — the most powerful ever built.
If the project stays on track, SLS could be sending astronauts into deep space by 2021.