(Sen) - Last week, and without much fanfare, NASA's latest home-grown rocket that will launch humans far into space passed a major test on its way to becoming reality.
The undramatically-named Space Launch System (SLS) Program successfully underwent a stringent examination by the space agency and will now progress to its preliminary design phase.
It passed a combined System Requirements Review and System Definition Review, assessments that were essential to allow continued development of the mighty rocket. First test flight is scheduled for 2017.
In various configurations, the heavy-lifter will not only launch astronauts aboard NASA's new Orion spacecraft on missions to asteroids and Mars, but also large payloads such as equipment they might need there.
It means that 50 years after humans first went to the Moon, manned spacecraft will once again carry them beyond low Earth orbit to more distant destinations.
William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA HQ in Washington, said: "This new heavy-lift launch vehicle will make it possible for explorers to reach beyond our current limits, to nearby asteroids, Mars and its moons, and to destinations even farther across our solar system.
"The in-depth assessment confirmed the basic vehicle concepts of the SLS, allowing the team to move forward and start more detailed engineering design."
The reviews, less than 10 months after the inception of the SLS program, were carried out by technical experts from across NASA who looked at documents describing the rocket system's specifications, performance, budget and schedule.
They also checked out the SLS system architecture and how it will integrate with the Orion spacecraft, managed by NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the management of launch operations at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
SLS Program Manager Todd May said: "This is a pivotal moment for this program and for NASA. This has been a whirlwind experience from a design standpoint. Reaching this key development point in such a short period of time, while following the strict protocol and design standards set by NASA for human spaceflight is a testament to the team's commitment to delivering the nation's next heavy-lift launch vehicle."
The SLS is being designed with two configurations. The first, which will be able to lift 70 metric tons, will make the test flight from the Kennedy Space Center in 2017, 50 years after the first Saturn V moon rocket blasted off there.
Later it will launch in its other, larger configuration with a second stage that will be capable of lifting 130 metric tons. Prime external contractor for building the rocket is Boeing. The SLS program is being managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.