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SLS v Saturn V: How NASA’s new rocket compares to Neil Armstrong’s launch vehicle

Standing taller than the Statue of Liberty and having cost an eye-watering $23 billion (£19 billion) to build, NASA’s brand new mega moon rocket is now just weeks away from its maiden launch.

The enormous Space Launch System (SLS) is scheduled to blast into space on August 29 as part of a six-week mission that will see it carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to lunar orbit and back. 

It will be the first of three planned trips to the moon that will culminate in returning humans to the lunar surface for the first time since the 1970s.

Known as the Artemis program, NASA wants to land the first woman and the first person of colour on the moon by 2025 — and the SLS will be the vehicle to take them there.

Weighing 5.5 million pounds (2.5 million kg) and capable of generating almost 40 Meganewtons of thrust, the rocket is the modern equivalent of the Saturn V, the huge launcher built during the Apollo era which powered Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon in 1969.

The two rockets may have been built more than half a century apart, but despite huge technological advances, the SLS doesn’t necessarily eclipse the Saturn V on every metric.

Here, MailOnline compares how the vehicles stack up against each other, from their height, weight and top speed, to cost per launch, fuel type and payload capabilities.

Head to head: Standing higher than the Statue of Liberty and costing $23 billion (£19 billion) to build, NASA’s brand new mega moon rocket (pictured left) is now just weeks away from its maiden launch. Here is how the SLS compares to the iconic Saturn V rocket (right), which blasted Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon in July 1969

Towering: The enormous Space Launch System (pictured) is scheduled to blast into space on August 29 as part of a six-week mission that will see it carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to lunar orbit and back

Towering: The enormous Space Launch System (pictured) is scheduled to blast into space on August 29 as part of a six-week mission that will see it carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to lunar orbit and back

It will be the first of three planned trips to the moon that will culminate in returning humans to the lunar surface for the first time since the 1970s

 It will be the first of three planned trips to the moon that will culminate in returning humans to the lunar surface for the first time since the 1970s

Predecessor: NASA's new rocket is the modern equivalent of the Saturn V, the huge launcher built during the Apollo era which powered Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon in 1969 (pictured)

Predecessor: NASA’s new rocket is the modern equivalent of the Saturn V, the huge launcher built during the Apollo era which powered Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon in 1969 (pictured)

History makers: Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin are pictured in front of the Saturn V a couple of months before their landing

History makers: Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin are pictured in front of the Saturn V a couple of months before their landing

HOW DOES THE SLS ROCKET COMPARE TO SATURN V?

SLS rocket

First launch: August 2022?

Program: Artemis 

Height: 322ft (98m)

Weight: 5.5 million pounds (2.5 million kg)

Thrust: 8.8 million pounds (39.1 Meganewtons)

Max payload to low-Earth orbit: 210,000 pounds (95 tonnes)

Max payload to lunar orbit: 59,500 pounds (27 tonnes) – the equivalent of 11 large SUVs

Solid fuel: Polybutadiene acrylonitrile

Liquid fuel: Oxygen and hydrogen

Top speed: 24,500mph (39,500km/h)

Engines: Four RS-25 engines sit at the base of the core stage – the same ones used on the space shuttle

Crew module: Orion (capable of carrying four astronauts)

Cost to build: $23 billion (£19 billion)

Price per launch: $4.1 billion (£3.3 billion)

Total launches:

Saturn V

First launch: November 1967

Program: Apollo 

Height: 363ft (110m)

Weight: 6.2 million pounds (2.8 million kg)

Thrust: 7.6 million pounds (34.5 Meganewtons)

Max payload to low-Earth orbit: 260,000 pounds (118 tonnes)

Max payload to lunar orbit: 90,000 pounds (41 tonnes) – the equivalent of 17 large SUVs

Solid fuel: N/A

Liquid fuel: Kerosene, oxygen and hydrogen

Top speed: 17,400mph (28,000km/h)

Engines: Five F-1 rocket engines, constructed in 1963 by the Rocketdyne Division of Rockwell International

Crew module: Three-man command module (Columbia)

Cost to build: $6.417 billion in 1969 ($51.8 billion in 2022)

Price per launch: $185 million in 1969 ($1.49 billion in 2022)

Total launches: 13 

 

The first version of the SLS will be called Block 1, before undergoing a series of upgrades over the next few years so that it can launch heavier payloads to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.

NASA hopes its mega rocket won’t just take astronauts to the moon, but will eventually be capable of blasting humans to Mars and beyond.

Height, weight and thrust

The Block 1 SLS will stand at 322ft (98m) and tower 23 storeys above the launch pad — meaning it is not quite as tall as the Saturn V’s colossal 363ft (110m) stature.

It also weighs less – at 5.5 million pounds (2.5 million kg) compared to 6.2 million pounds (2.8 million kg) – but the 2022 rocket is by no means a little brother to its iconic predecessor. 

‘It is truly an immense rocket. It is just jaw-droppingly big,’ said John Shannon, vice president and program manager for the SLS at Boeing, the rocket’s prime contractor.

Development: The first version of the SLS will be called Block 1, before undergoing a series of upgrades over the next few years so that it can launch heavier payloads to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit

Development: The first version of the SLS will be called Block 1, before undergoing a series of upgrades over the next few years so that it can launch heavier payloads to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit

Piecing it together: NASA's hopes its mega rocket won't just take astronauts to the moon, but will eventually be capable of blasting humans to Mars and beyond

Piecing it together: NASA’s hopes its mega rocket won’t just take astronauts to the moon, but will eventually be capable of blasting humans to Mars and beyond

Remarkably, the Saturn V (pictured) went from paper design to flight in just six years ¿ having entered formal development in January 1961 and launching for the first time in November 1967

Remarkably, the Saturn V (pictured) went from paper design to flight in just six years — having entered formal development in January 1961 and launching for the first time in November 1967

WHAT WAS THE SATURN V ROCKET?

The Saturn V was a three stage rocket used by NASA to send astronauts to the moon during the Apollo space program.

In total it towered around 363ft high and weighed 6.2 million pounds. 

The first stage was 138ft long and could produce more than 7.5 million pounds of thrust.

Its five rocket engines would burn for 2 minutes 41 seconds, sending the spacecraft to a height of 42 miles above the Earth’s surface.

The first stage would then separate and fall back to Earth, burning up in the process, while the second and upper stages continued on their journey.

Only a few first stage Saturn V boosters exist today, as they were left over from Apollo flights that were cancelled.

Not only is it big, but it dwarfs Saturn V when it comes to the thrust it is capable of generating.

The SLS’s four RS-25 engines, which were also used on the space shuttle, can produce 8.8 million pounds (39.1 Meganewtons) of thrust — 15 per cent more than the Saturn V’s 7.6 million pounds (34.5 Meganewtons).

On thrust alone, the SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built when it finally launches.

It also has a top speed of 24,500mph (39,500km/h), compared to 17,400mph (28,000km/h) for the Saturn V.

Cost and length of time to build

It may be an astonishing amount of money, but the $23 billion (£19 billion) that went into developing and building the SLS actually equates to about half of what was spent on the Saturn V, when inflation is taken into account.

The latter cost around $6.4 billion (£5.2 billion) in the 1960s, which in today’s money works out at about $51.8 billion (£42.3 billion).

Remarkably, however, the Saturn V went from paper design to flight in just six years — having entered formal development in January 1961 and launching for the first time in November 1967. 

The brainchild of German-born engineer Wernher von Braun, it successfully flew 13 times before being retired.

The SLS design was unveiled in 2011 but entered the formal development stage eight years ago. So despite the numerous technological improvements over the past five-and-a-half decades, it has still taken longer than it took von Braun in the Sixties.

Many of the delays have been caused by issues with the SLS itself, while the Artemis program has also been dogged by problems with the development of spacesuits and the human lander systems that will take crew to the lunar surface. 

Legal issues have held it up, too. Last year Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin unsuccessfully sued NASA over a decision to award the human lander system contract solely to SpaceX. 

It may have taken longer to get to this point but NASA is now building the SLS rockets needed for several missions. 

To reduce cost and development time, the US space agency is also upgrading proven hardware from the space shuttle and other exploration programs, while making use of cutting-edge tooling and manufacturing technology. 

Some parts of the rocket are new and others have been upgraded with modern features that meet the needs of deep space missions.

Power: The SLS's shuttle-derived solid rocket boosters (pictured) contain the propellant polybutadiene acrylonitrile and provide more than 75 per cent of the vehicles thrust during the first two minutes of flight

Power: The SLS’s shuttle-derived solid rocket boosters (pictured) contain the propellant polybutadiene acrylonitrile and provide more than 75 per cent of the vehicles thrust during the first two minutes of flight

Make-up: Its core stage stores 730,000 gallons of super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that fuel the RS-25 engines

Make-up: Its core stage stores 730,000 gallons of super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that fuel the RS-25 engines

Although the Saturn V may have cost more to develop and build, it is not as pricey to launch. 

It cost $185 million per blast-off in 1969 – the equivalent of $1.49 billion (£1.2 billion) in today’s money – while the SLS is estimated to be closer to $4.1 billion (£3.3 billion).

How the SLS works compared to Saturn V

NASA’s new mega rocket will be powered by a core stage that is flanked by two solid rocket boosters, and an upper stage called the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage.

How it looks: NASA's SLS rocket will be powered by a core stage that is flanked by two solid rocket boosters, and an upper stage called the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage

How it looks: NASA’s SLS rocket will be powered by a core stage that is flanked by two solid rocket boosters, and an upper stage called the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage

This is a different setup to the Saturn V’s three rocket stages. That vehicle didn’t use boosters in any form because it was sized so as to not need them.

Solid propellant technology was also still not very good in the 60s, so the Saturn V was powered by a mixture of kerosene, liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.

The SLS’s shuttle-derived solid rocket boosters contain the propellant polybutadiene acrylonitrile and provide more than 75 per cent of the vehicles thrust during the first two minutes of flight. 

Its core stage, meanwhile, stores 730,000 gallons of super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that fuel the RS-25 engines.

What about the crew capsules?

As previously mentioned, the Saturn V was split into three stages. The first used five F-1 engines to lift the massive rocket off the ground, before it was jettisoned to allow for burns by the second and third stages. 

Ultimately these also separated from the Apollo spacecraft, leaving just the command module, service module and the lunar lander — complete with an ascent and descent stage.

In the case of Apollo 11, the command module was known as Columbia. This is what transported Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong to lunar orbit, before the latter pair made their journey down to the surface.

SLS’s next-generation crew vehicle, known as Orion, will actually cater for four astronauts rather than the three on top of Saturn V. 

While the end of this month will be the first launch of the SLS, it will be the second for the Orion capsule, which was involved in a test flight in December 2014 when it went to space on a ULA Delta IV Heavy.

When it launches, Orion won’t have any crew on board but will instead carry dummies to the moon and back.

These are designed to replicate human weight, and give scientists and engineers and insight into flight performance, without putting humans at risk.

Unlike the Apollo capsule’s single flight computer, Orion is equipped with two redundant flight computers that operate simultaneously. Each one is also equipped with two redundant computers. 

Home sweet home: SLS's next-generation crew vehicle, known as Orion (pictured in an artist's impression), will actually cater for four astronauts rather than the three on top of Saturn V.

Home sweet home: SLS’s next-generation crew vehicle, known as Orion (pictured in an artist’s impression), will actually cater for four astronauts rather than the three on top of Saturn V.

Splashdown: In the case of Apollo 11, the command module was known as Columbia (pictured). This is what transported Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong to lunar orbit, before the latter pair made their journey down to the surface

Splashdown: In the case of Apollo 11, the command module was known as Columbia (pictured). This is what transported Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong to lunar orbit, before the latter pair made their journey down to the surface

Orion’s computers also hold significantly more memory and operate at much faster speeds than an Apollo-era computer. 

In fact, NASA says they operate 20,000 times faster and the memory capacity is 128,000 times greater.

And the rest of the payload?

In terms of a maximum payload to low-Earth orbit, the SLS is slated to be able to carry some 210,000 pounds, the equivalent of 95 metric tonnes.

As a comparison, the Saturn V could transport 260,000 pounds (118 tonnes). 

The former’s max payload to lunar orbit, meanwhile, is 59,500 pounds (27 tonnes) – the equivalent of 11 large SUVs – while the latter’s was 90,000 pounds (41 tonnes).

Although the Saturn V technically wins here on paper, the SLS payload capability is expected to grow with newer iterations of the design.

Liftoff: In terms of a maximum payload to low-Earth orbit, the SLS is slated to be able to carry some 210,000 pounds, the equivalent of 95 metric tonnes. As a comparison, the Saturn V (pictured) could transport 260,000 pounds (118 tonnes)

Liftoff: In terms of a maximum payload to low-Earth orbit, the SLS is slated to be able to carry some 210,000 pounds, the equivalent of 95 metric tonnes. As a comparison, the Saturn V (pictured) could transport 260,000 pounds (118 tonnes)

Dry-run: Apollo 7 was the first test flight in the program to be launched to space. It was followed by three more flights ¿ including 9 (pictured) and 10, the latter of which orbited the moon ¿ before the famous lunar landing in 1969

Dry-run: Apollo 7 was the first test flight in the program to be launched to space. It was followed by three more flights – including 9 (pictured) and 10, the latter of which orbited the moon – before the famous lunar landing in 1969

The mission: During Artemis I, Orion ¿ which was primarily built by Lockheed Martin ¿ will stay in space 'longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before,' NASA said

The mission: During Artemis I, Orion – which was primarily built by Lockheed Martin – will stay in space ‘longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before,’ NASA said

What is more crucial, however, is not necessarily the maximum payload a vehicle can transport but the cost that it takes to do so. 

This is often seen as one of the most prohibitive things about space travel, particularly when it comes to longer duration human missions to places like Mars. More on that later.

How do the test missions compare to the main event? 

During Artemis I, Orion – which was primarily built by Lockheed Martin – will stay in space ‘longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before,’ NASA has said. 

ARTEMIS I: MISSION FACTS 

Launch date: Aug 29, 2022

Mission duration: 42 days, 3 hours, 20 minutes

Total distance travelled: 1.3 miIlion miles

Re-entry speed: 24,500 mph (Mach 32)

Splashdown: Oct 10, 2022

The mission is designed to show that SLS and Orion are ready to carry astronauts.

If Artemis I is a success, NASA will then send Artemis II on a trip around the moon as early as 2024, this time with a human crew on board.

The Artemis II mission plans to send four astronauts into a lunar flyby for a maximum of 21 days.

Both missions are test flights to demonstrate the technology and abilities of Orion, SLS and the Artemis mission before NASA puts human boots back on the moon.

With the Saturn V – before any Apollo mission flew – NASA dealt with a major tragedy in January 1967. 

As astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were carrying out a simulation on the launch pad in Florida, a flash fire broke out in their capsule and killed all three.

The disaster caused NASA to re-examine all aspects of the program and rework many of the spacecraft’s systems, meaning it wasn’t until October 1968 that the first Apollo mission got to space.

Apollo 7 was followed by three more flights that operated in a similar way to the plan for Artemis, with 10 being the second to orbit the moon and acting as a dry-run for the famous lunar landing that took place two months later.

Are there any other contenders to rival the SLS and Saturn V?

Yes there are. Elon Musk has been trumpeting his much-anticipated Starship, which could be a game-changer for space travel.

Like Saturn V, SLS is not a reusable launch vehicle. But Starship will be.

It is being developed as a fully reusable transport system that is capable of carrying up to 100 people to Mars.

Starship is a rocket and spacecraft combination that when added together will stand at 394ft (120m).

Side by side: This shows how the SLS compares to Saturn V, SpaceX's Starship and Falcon Heavy, and the space shuttle

Side by side: This shows how the SLS compares to Saturn V, SpaceX’s Starship and Falcon Heavy, and the space shuttle

STARSHIP AND SUPER HEAVY LAUNCHER 

SpaceX Starship is made up of two stages, the Super Heavy booster and the Starship vehicle on top.

Super Heavy fires and gives Starship the boost it needs to reach orbit.

Once in space, Starship separates and continues its journey, while Super Heavy returns to land on the ground.

It is designed to be a reusable launch vehicle that could put humans on Mars, according to founder Elon Musk.

Super Heavy 

The first stage, or booster, of the next-generation launch system with a gross liftoff mass of over three million kg.

It uses sub-cooled liquid methane and liquid oxygen (CH4/LOX) propellants. 

The booster will return to land at the launch site on its six legs. 

Height: 70m (230ft) 

Diameter: 9m (30ft) 

Starship

Starship is the fully reusable spacecraft and second stage of the Starship system. 

It offers an integrated payload section and is capable of carrying passengers and cargo to Earth orbit, planetary destinations, and between destinations on Earth. 

Height: 50m (160ft)

Diameter 9m (30ft) 

Because it will be reusable, the rocket will be able to return to the ground after launch and then blast off a short time later – much like an aircraft – once it has been re-filled with propellant.

This is a huge development because it brings down the cost of rocket launches and stops parts being discarded in the sea or burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere like with other launch systems. 

The spacecraft, which is also called Starship, will sit atop a rocket called Super Heavy. 

This will be powered by around 32 Raptor engines and should achieve more than 16 million pounds (70 Meganewtons) of maximum thrust. 

The rocket will also be able to lift at least 220,000 pounds (100 tonnes) of payload, and possibly as much as 330,000 pounds (150 tonnes), to low-Earth orbit.

Musk hopes Starship will be used for long-haul trips to Mars and back — which could take up to nine months each way. He is looking to install around 40 cabins in the payload area near the front of the upper stage. 

The first orbital test flight of SpaceX’s Starship is planned to launch as early as next month.

It is not just the US that is looking to build mega rockets, however. 

China is also planning to develop the latest, biggest and boldest version of its Long March series of rockets.

The Long March 9 will be Beijing’s version of the SLS: a super heavy-lift rocket intended to launch large pieces of infrastructure into orbit and even help construct the joint China-Russia International Lunar Research Station. 

It will use the same fuel (methane-liquid oxygen, or methalox) as SpaceX’s Starship, while the two designs also share heavy-lift capabilities. However, beyond that their structure is wildly different.

Reports suggest that the Long March 9 will have a payload capacity to low-Earth orbit of around 308,000 to 330,000 pounds (140 to 150 tonnes).

There has also been talk that Russia is building its own mega rocket, too.

Where can I watch the SLS blast off?

NASA will provide livestream coverage of Artemis I’s move to the launch pad ahead of its targeted no-earlier-than-August 29 liftoff. 

Ten shoebox-size secondary payloads, called CubeSats, are hitching a ride to space on Artemis I’s SLS rocket, and several other investigations are flying inside the Orion spacecraft during the flight test. 

Each of the payloads will perform science and technology experiments in deep space, expanding understanding of lunar science, technology developments, and deep space radiation.  

The US space agency is targeting August 18 to roll the SLS and Orion spacecraft to Launch Pad 39B in Florida.

It will provide a live stream on the NASA Kennedy You Tube channel, beginning at 18:00 ET (23:00 BST). 

More information about the timing of the Artemis I launch will follow in the coming weeks.

How other rockets compare: The fully reusable Starship will be able to carry a payload of more than 220,000lb into low Earth orbit, making it the largest rocket ever created

How other rockets compare: The fully reusable Starship will be able to carry a payload of more than 220,000lb into low Earth orbit, making it the largest rocket ever created

NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon in 2025 as part of the Artemis mission

Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the moon in Greek mythology. 

NASA has chosen her to personify its path back to the moon, which will see astronauts return to the lunar surface by 2025 –  including the first woman and the next man.

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. 

Artemis 1 will be the first integrated flight test of NASA’s deep space exploration system: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  

Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed flight that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the moon and beyond. 

During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown.

It will travel 280,000 miles (450,600 km) from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the moon over the course of about a three-week mission. 

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before. 

With this first exploration mission, NASA is leading the next steps of human exploration into deep space where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems near the moon needed for lunar surface missions and exploration to other destinations farther from Earth, including Mars. 

The will take crew on a different trajectory and test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard. 

Together, Orion, SLS and the ground systems at Kennedy will be able to meet the most challenging crew and cargo mission needs in deep space.

Eventually NASA seeks to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon by 2028 as a result of the Artemis mission.

The space agency hopes this colony will uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy. 

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