x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

New impetus in space

Nasa's big new rocket, planned as part of a manned-mission-to-Mars programme, looks great on paper. But will Congress pay for it?

The name - Space Launch System, or SLS - is prosaic and bureaucratic. But the new launch vehicle unveiled this week by the US space agency Nasa will be big enough to carry a vast payload of human aspiration. This rocket is mankind's best effort so far to get beyond this one little planet and its moon.

The SLS is intended to carry Nasa's six-person Orion capsule, also under development, to Mars. Propulsion breakthroughs will be needed to move humans, or even hardware, beyond the red planet at acceptable speeds. But Mars is the challenge this generation faces.

Just a week ago we were saying in this spot that the impending fall of an obsolete satellite symbolised how much had changed since the dawn of space travel, and how mankind now seemed glued to one planet. This rocket stirs new hope, but we do want to see more than blueprints.

This logical next step is boldly conceived but remains perilously far from being a sure thing - and we speak of the political and financial barriers, not the engineering ones.

In theory the $35 billion (Dh128.5 billion) STS will have an unmanned test by 2017; a manned Mars voyage could take place in the 2030s. But budgets are always at the mercy of the mercurial US Congress, and Nasa's manned programmes may well be trying to breathe in a funding vacuum well before 2017. For now, we can say only that the dream is alive.