How Boeing is building the world’s most powerful deep-space rocket

When NASA sends the first woman and the next man to the moon, those astronauts won’t just be the first humans to land on the lunar surface since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, they’ll also be riding atop the biggest and most powerful rocket in NASA’s history: the Space Launch System, built by Boeing.

The SLS will stand taller than the Statue of Liberty when it’s ready to take off from the launchpad with the crew of NASA’s Artemis program. And with almost 9 million pounds of thrust, it will be powerful enough to carry a 38-metric ton payload to the moon.

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According to Matt Duggan, mission management and operation manager for the Boeing Company, the Space Launch System is a key piece of technology that will enable humans to travel farther into space and for longer periods. 

“The reason we need larger and larger rockets, as we go further and further into space, is that we want to take more and more stuff with us as we go,” Duggan said in an interview for CNET’s Now What series. “You’re going to pack differently if you’re going on a monthlong trip, than if you’re going on an overnight trip.

“That’s where the SLS comes in. It can carry these huge, huge payloads … and include all the supplies that humans need to live and work in deep space.”


An artist’s image of the SLS, shortly after launch. 


That ability to carry large payloads isn’t just vital for carrying crew and cargo to the moon, but also for future missions to Mars. Unlike previous rockets developed for NASA missions, the SLS will be able to carry entire payloads, pre-assembled, to deep space so that supplies are ready to go on Mars as humans arrive. 

While the team working on the SLS includes veterans who worked on the space shuttle program and the International Space Station (and the design of the SLS itself incorporates parts used on shuttle missions) a lot has changed since those earlier spacecraft were built. 


This interview is part of CNET’s Now What series, covering the leaders and trends shaping the world.

“It’s never been done before quite this way,” said Duggan “We’re taking advantage of the very best, most modern engineering practices that we have today. And I think that’s a huge advantage we have now over the people who — successfully, of course — but who designed Saturn V. That was a rocket where you had people doing designs on paper, doing calculations by hand, and making parts by hand. 

“We can do as much analysis in a single day as they did on their entire program over years. And with computer-aided manufacturing, we can build parts that are so precise, that they’re literally sculpted to be

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Component failure in NASA’s deep-space crew capsule could take months to fix

Engineers are racing to fix a failed piece of equipment on NASA’s future deep-space crew capsule Orion ahead of its first flight to space. It may require months of work to replace and fix. Right now, engineers at NASA and Orion’s primary contractor, Lockheed Martin, are trying to figure out the best way to fix the component and how much time the repairs are going to take.

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In early November, engineers at Lockheed Martin working on Orion noticed that a power component inside the vehicle had failed, according to an internal email and an internal PowerPoint presentation seen by The Verge. Known as a power and data unit, or PDU, the component is a “main power/data boxes,” according to the email, responsible for activating key systems that Orion needs during flight.


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Orion is a critical part of NASA’s Artemis program

Orion is a critical part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024. The cone-shaped capsule is designed to launch on top of a future rocket called the Space Launch System, or SLS, a vehicle that NASA has been building for the last decade. To test out both of these systems’ capabilities, NASA plans to launch an uncrewed Orion capsule on top of the SLS on the rocket’s first flight in late 2021 — a mission called Artemis I.

While the SLS still has many key tests to undergo before that flight, the Orion capsule slated to fly on that first mission is mostly assembled, waiting in Florida at NASA’s Operation and Checkout Facility at Kennedy Space Center. NASA had planned to transfer the Orion capsule to the Multi-Payload Processing Facility (MPPF) at KSC on December 7th, though that rollout may be postponed due to this issue. When asked for a response, NASA directed The Verge to a quick blog post outlining the failure.

a dirty kitchen in a house: NASA’s Orion crew capsule, attached to the adapter and service module, with spacecraft adapter jettison fairings installed.

© Photo by Ben Smegelsky / NASA
NASA’s Orion crew capsule, attached to the adapter and service module, with spacecraft adapter jettison fairings installed.

Replacing the PDU isn’t easy. The component is difficult to reach: it’s located inside an adapter that connects Orion to its service module — a cylindrical trunk that provides support, propulsion, and power for the capsule during its trip through space. To get to the PDU, Lockheed Martin could remove the Orion crew capsule from its service module, but it’s a lengthy process that could take up to a year. As many as nine months would be needed to take the vehicle apart and put it back together again, in addition to three months for subsequent testing, according to the presentation.

Lockheed has another option, but it’s never been done before and may carry extra risks, Lockheed Martin engineers acknowledge in their presentation. To do it, engineers would have to tunnel through the adapter’s exterior by removing some of the outer panels of the adapter to get to the PDU. The panels weren’t designed to be removed

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