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Rocket for deep-space travel gets NASA green light

Boeing Co. has finalized a $2.8 billion contract with NASA to build the world’s most powerful rocket, the company announced on Wednesday. It also stated that a critical design review of the rocket, known as the Space Launch System, had already been completed. NASA last ordered an assessment of this scale with the redoubtable Saturn V, which was used to carry astronauts to the moon.

At the heart of the Space Launch System’s mission is the goal of exploring and investigating near-Earth objects, such as asteroids, the moon, and Mars. If all goes according to plan, the rocket will take its maiden flight from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in 2017.

The rocket is a result of a 2010 decision by President Barack Obama to reassess the nation’s extra-planetary ambitions. He called for ending a manned moon mission known as Constellation in favor of future deep-space projects.

The Space Launch System’s reliance on integrating existing hardware into the overall design is one of the project’s more controversial features. Critics have panned the “Frankenstein rocket” for using technology that is not considered to be at the cutting edge of spacecraft design. The Space Frontier Foundation advocacy group characterized the project as being built from rotting congressional leftovers, and claimed that its budgetary ramifications would destroy the nation’s astronaut program. NASA estimates that the cost of building the rocket will be $6.8 billion in the fiscal years of 2014 through 2018.

Boeing hailed the versatility of the Space Launch System, and stated that it can accomplish a range of missions, such as carrying astronauts to the Moon and Mars as well as distant asteroids.

Engineers are currently designing two versions of the rocket: one for hauling 154,000 pounds and another for hauling 286,000 pounds. Both versions call for the carrying of the capsule-shaped Orion spacecraft, which can house four astronauts on long-term missions. The planned 2017 mission will carry an empty Orion craft while a second mission in 2021 will have a team of NASA astronauts on board.