Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Who's Who in NASA's Megabillion Dollar Race to Mars?

By Rich Smith - Nov 7, 2015 at 8:00AM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

And who will get the money? And how long will it take?

Matt Damon has been to Mars. Now, NASA wants to visit him -- and American industry will help.

Dec. 5, 2014, test launch of NASA's new Orion spaceship. Photo source: NASA.

Last month, NASA's top contractors helping build the Space Launch System (SLS) super-rocket announced what they called a "significant ... milestone" on the path to Mars. On Oct. 22, NASA confirmed that SLS has passed its Critical Design Review, the first top-to-bottom evaluation of a major new launch vehicle that NASA has conducted since the 1970s. NASA confirms that SLS is "within cost and schedule constraints" and meets all system requirements that have been established for it.

Accordingly, SLS is greenlit for "production, assembly, integration and testing..."

What is SLS?
SLS is NASA's next-generation space-launch vehicle. A monster rocket nearly as big as the spaceships that once sailed between Earth and the moon during the Apollo missions of the 1960s and '70s, it's designed to propel the Orion spaceship -- built by Lockheed Martin (LMT 0.57%) -- into orbit and beyond.

According to NASA data, SLS will stand 322 feet tall upon completion -- nearly twice the height of the Space Shuttle and about as tall as a football field (plus one end zone) is long. Powered by two enormous solid rocket boosters built by Orbital ATK (OA) backing up a core stage powered by Aerojet Rocketdyne (AJRD 0.24%), SLS will produce 8.4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff -- 8% more "oomph" than the Space Shuttle produced and 12% more than sent the Saturn V rockets hurtling toward the moon.

Altogether, SLS is designed to lift payloads up to 70 metric tons initially. Subsequent upgrades to the engines will nearly double that payload to 130 tons.

Artist's conception of what SLS will look like in flight. Image source: NASA.

Who builds SLS?
Four of America's biggest "space tech" firms have taken the lead in building SLS for NASA. Among them:

  • Boeing (BA 3.52%) serves as the primary contractor on SLS, responsible for designing, developing, producing, and testing the rocket's core and upper stage, as well as its avionics.
  • Orbital ATK will build SLS's twin rocket boosters, supplying more than 75% of the rocket's thrust in its first two minutes of flight.
  • Aerojet Rocketdyne will equip SLS with RS-25 engines to power SLS's core stage, and also the upper stage RL-10 engines that will to push SLS all of the way into orbit, and then send Orion on its way into interplanetary flight.
  • Lockheed Martin is building the Orion spacecraft itself -- the thing that all those stages and engines are helping to get off the ground. Ultimately, it's Orion that will be making the trip to Mars.

Together, these four firms (and their smaller partners on SLS) will share in an expected $7 billion that NASA is expected to invest in SLS through the program's first launch in 2018. Ultimately, the rewards could be even richer than that. By some estimates, taking SLS from Earth orbit to the moon and ultimately to Mars could be a $30 billion endeavor -- and some analysts posit costs in excess of $100 billion over a term of years.

A trip to Mars would be a big coup for NASA -- on a big spaceship and with a correspondingly big price tag. Image source: NASA.

How many years, exactly?
How long all of this will ultimately take is anybody's guess, but we do know a few specifics. With all systems "go" for SLS's continued development, NASA is on track to launch the first unmanned SLS mission, designated Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), on Sept. 30, 2018. The launch is scheduled to take place at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. EM-1 will send Orion into a 20-day circumlunar orbit, passing the moon and going farther from Earth than any previous piloted space mission, and returning to Earth.

Five years later, SLS will send up EM-2, a manned space mission this time, shooting four astronauts to the moon -- perhaps with the aim of lassoing a stray asteroid and placing it in lunar orbit for further study.

And then, the next step: Mars.

NASA hasn't yet put a firm date on a Matt Damon-esque mission to Mars, mind you, saying only vaguely that it's looking to get this done sometime "in the 2030s." But with a potential $100 billion bonanza for the companies that help to get them there, it should be worth the wait.

Mankind's move to Mars won't be a straight-line endeavor -- but already, the tentacles are extending. Image source: NASA.

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Stocks Mentioned

The Boeing Company Stock Quote
The Boeing Company
$132.23 (3.52%) $4.50
Lockheed Martin Corporation Stock Quote
Lockheed Martin Corporation
$450.56 (0.57%) $2.57
Orbital ATK, Inc. Stock Quote
Orbital ATK, Inc.
Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings, Inc. Stock Quote
Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings, Inc.
$41.32 (0.24%) $0.10

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning service.

Stock Advisor Returns
S&P 500 Returns

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 05/29/2022.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.