NASA unveils modular rocket to carry next generation of astronauts

After a fight in Congress over alleged cost overruns and saving jobs from the shuttered space-shuttle program, NASA on Wednesday unveiled its rocket of the future -- a giant, modular design that can take large or small payloads, including a new generation of space explorers.

Calling it "the most powerful rocket in history," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said the new rocket would come in under budget and create new jobs in Florida. He said it would help keep the International Space Station going until 2020. "It allows NASA to get out of low Earth orbit and explore the heavens," Nelson told a news conference at the Capitol.

The rocket will use a liquid-hydrogen and liquid-oxygen fuel system adapted from the space-shuttle program, which sent up its last mission in July.

"The next chapter in America's space-exploration story is being written today," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at the news conference. He said it would take Americans farther into space than anyone had gone, while creating jobs at home.

"This, today, I believe, is the commitment that America is making to assure that we are not going to be an also-ran. We are going to continue to be a world leader," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who has repeatedly quarrelled with the Obama administration over continued funding of NASA's human-spaceflight program. Hutchison, ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, last week joined Nelson in accusing the White House of trying to sabotage the rocket by leaking "wildly" inflated estimates of cost overruns.

"This rocket is coming in at the cost of what not only what we estimated in the NASA authorization act, but less," Nelson said on Wednesday. "The cost of the rocket over a five-to-six-year period in the NASA authorization bill was to be no more than $11.5 billion." He said it will in fact cost just $10 billion. With the Orion capsule and ground support, the program will cost $18 billion between now and 2017, he said.

Congress required NASA to release a plan for the SLS by January, but NASA failed to do so and the Senate Commerce Committee began a formal investigation in June. Hutchison said she was worried workers who could otherwise work on the new program would be laid off if NASA didn't hurry up.

"I think that now that the administration has come forward, everyone is on the same page on the numbers, the numbers are within the authorization levels--I think we're now moving forward as a team for America," Hutchison said on Wednesday.

The new SLS rocket includes designs from other projects. "It's fair to call this the largest rocket, most powerful rocket," NASA's Bill Gerstenmaier told reporters in a telephone briefing.

"It's not fair to say this is really a rocket built from shuttle parts," he added. "This is really these components used in a new and novel way."

NASA is currently relying on Russian rockets to take astronauts to the International Space Station. Members of Congress and staff across NASA have been worried that that United States would abandon human spaceflight after President Obama nixed plans by former President George W. Bush to send astronauts back to the moon. Instead, Obama wants NASA to aim to send people to an asteroid and Mars, but on a longer timescale.

"President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that's exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow's explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars," Bolden said.