China’s New Megarocket Design Shows NASA’s SLS Is Already Obsolete

China’s New Megarocket Design Shows NASA’s SLS Is Already Obsolete

China’s New Megarocket Design 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: By Han Guan (AP)

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

A team in China presented its updated model at the ongoing Zhuhai Airshow, such as: reported in Space News. Long March 9’s new design, with its grid fins and noticeably absent side boosters, evokes SpaceX’s spaceship, and with it thoughts of reusability. Liu Bing, design director at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), confirmed the new direction in a conversation with China Central Television, but said the design is not yet finalized, according to SpaceNews.

This development caught the eye of Elon Musk, who led 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 mention NASA’s replaceable Space Launch System by name, 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 has mentioned”untenable.”

SLS has yet to leave the launch pad, and it’s already obsolete. China, it would appear, is not willing to march down that same path. Mind you, NASA made the decision to go with an expendable megarocket 12 years ago, in a decision guided heavily by politics and budgetary constraints. It wasn’t obvious to everyone back then 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 celebrated for its innovations and accomplishments.

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

China first suggested the idea of ​​building a replaceable super-heavy launch vehicle in 2018 with the goal of transporting crews and cargo to Earth and Moon orbit. Early mockups leaned toward NASA’s Space Launch System, that is ready to make its first launch on November 16.

The original plan was for the Long March 9 to deliver 100 tons into low Earth orbit, but China seems to be thinking bigger — both in terms of the rocket’s power and its recyclability. The improved plan, SpaceNews says, is for the March 9 Lange to be made up of three stages and capable of lifting 150 tons to LEO. The rocket will be 354 feet long (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 advances in reusability demonstrated by SpaceX.” The company’s Falcon 9 is indeed known for its reusable first stage, but Starship – the heir 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 Starship, but it could happen later this year.

SpaceNews says the Chinese rocket is slated for its inaugural launch around 2030, but given that the design isn’t finalized and China has never performed a controlled vertical rocket landing, that seems wildly optimistic. According to the South China Morning Post, the March 9 Lange will: put into use around 2035That sounds a bit more realistic. A recent hot fire test of the 500-ton thrust YF-130 engine, which will eventually power the Long March 9, suggests China is making progress.

As for SLS, only time knows if the replaceable expensive missile has a future. Congress and US taxpayers may grow tired of the concept and opt for Elon’s solution instead.

More: Artemis 1: Boldly going where four RS-25 engines have gone many times before.





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