China's mega-rocket redesign shows NASA's SLS is already obsolete

China’s mega-rocket redesign shows NASA’s SLS is already obsolete

The launch of a Long March-2F Y12 rocket on June 17, 2021.

The launch of a Long March-2F Y12 rocket on June 17, 2021.
Photo: Ng Han Guan (PA)

Reusable rockets, big or small, are the future, and as a recently unveiled model of a Long March 9 launch vehicle suggests, Chinese rocket scientists are eyeing the idea.

A team in China showcased their updated model at the ongoing Zhuhai Airshow, as reported in SpaceNews. The new Long March 9 design, with its conspicuously absent grid fins and side boosters, evokes SpaceX’s Starship, and with it, thoughts of reuse. Speaking to China Central Television, Liu Bing, director of design at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), confirmed the new direction but said the design has not been finalized, according to SpaceNews. .

This development caught the eye of Elon Musk, who spearheaded the concept and proved it could be done. “Rockets that are not reusable have no future,” says SpaceX CEO tweeted in response to the SpaceNews article.

The SpaceX CEO didn’t name NASA’s expendable space launch system, though he might as well have. The 321-foot-tall (98-meter) SLS rocket, along with the Orion spacecraft, cost more than $50 billion to develop, and each launch of the Artemis rocket is expected to Cost more than $4.1 billion, a price that Inspector General Paul Martin called “unsustainable.”

SLS hasn’t left the launch pad yet, and it’s already obsolete. China, it seems, is unwilling to follow the same path. Note that NASA made the decision to go with an expendable mega-rocket 12 years ago, in a decision heavily driven by politics and budget constraints. It was not obvious to everyone at the time that reusable rockets were feasible and safe. It certainly wasn’t obvious to NASA in 2010, but perhaps it should have been, given that the space agency is so famous for its innovations and achievements.

More on this story: Why hydrogen leaks continue to be a major headache for NASA launches

China first offers the idea of ​​building an expendable superheavy launch vehicle in 2018 with the aim of transporting crews and cargo to Earth orbit and the Moon. Early mockups leaned toward NASA’s Space Launch System, which is ready to make its first launch on November 16.

The original plan was for the Long March 9 to deliver 100 metric tons to low Earth orbit, but China seems to be thinking bigger, both in terms of the rocket’s power and its recyclability. The improved plan, says SpaceNews, is for the Long March 9 to consist of three stages and be capable of lifting 150 metric tons to LEO. The rocket will be 354 feet tall (108 meters) and weigh 4,180 metric tons.

“In recent years,” writes SpaceNews, senior CALT officials have “presented new concepts for the Long March 9, apparently in response to developments in reusability demonstrated by SpaceX.” Indeed, the company’s Falcon 9 is famous for its reusable first stage, but Starship, the heir apparent to the world’s most powerful rocket, will be fully reusable. No date has been set for the first launch of the fully stacked two-stage spacecraft, but it could happen later this year.

SpaceNews reports that the Chinese rocket’s maiden launch is expected around 2030, but given that the design has yet to be finalized and China has never conducted a controlled vertical rocket landing, this seems extremely optimistic. According to the South China Morning Post, Long March 9 will be enter service around 2035, which looks a bit more realistic. A recent hot fire test of the 500 metric ton YF-130 engine, which will eventually power the Long March 9, suggests China is making progress.

As for the SLS, only time will tell if the expensive and expensive rocket has a future. Congress and American taxpayers might get fed up with the concept and opt for Elon’s solution instead.

After: Artemis 1: to boldly go where four RS-25 engines have gone many times before.

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