“We send people 200 miles up in a tin can, report that the newts are reproducing nicely, thank you, and then we’re told this is at NASA at the forefront of exploration. It’s more than 200 miles between New York and Boston. I mean, let’s explore.” — Carl Sagan, 1996
The first age of manned space exploration pretty much ended when NASA’s space shuttle program died in 2011. While other nations and private organizations have picked up the slack with respect to near-Earth space travel, no organization has stepped up to do what NASA used to do: send humans out further than they’d ever been before. When NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) launches in 2018, this will all change.
What makes the SLS such a big deal is that it’s so blooming powerful—the most powerful rocket in human history, capable of lifting 143 tons into space. For comparative purposes, a space shuttle could carry a 27-ton payload; SpaceX's Falcon 9 Heavy, the most powerful privately-funded rocket in history, can carry 53 tons.
But there’s also a huge symbolic component to the SLS: its first manned mission, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), is slated to carry human beings further into space than they’ve ever been before. In the longer term, the SLS is built to accommodate manned missions to Mars and Europa. Whether it will actually be used for these missions before competitors get there is a good question, but the development of this technology is unprecedented—and marking as it does NASA’s first serious foray into manned space travel since the end of the shuttle program, it is welcome news for would-be astronauts and everyone who celebrates them.