Super heavy-lift launch vehicle

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Comparison of super heavy-lift launch vehicles. Masses listed are the maximum payload to low Earth orbit in metric tons.

A super heavy-lift launch vehicle (SHLLV) is a launch vehicle capable of lifting more than 50 tonnes (110,000 lb) (by NASA classification) or 100 tonnes (220,000 lb)[1] (by Soviet/Russian classification) of payload into low Earth orbit (LEO),[2][3] more than a heavy-lift launch vehicle.

Only two super heavy launch vehicles have achieved orbit carrying a super-heavy class payload of more than 50 t (110,000 lb)—Saturn V (1967–1973) and Energia (1987–1988)—while one super heavy lift launch vehicle is currently operational—Falcon Heavy (2018–present)—but has not yet transported a >50t payload to orbit. Two super heavy launch vehicles are under development: SpaceX Starship and the NASA Space Launch System.

Flown vehicles[edit]


  • Saturn V was a NASA launch vehicle that made 12 orbital launches between 1967 and 1973, principally for the Apollo program through 1972. The Apollo lunar payload included a command module, service module, and Lunar Module, with a total mass of 45 t (99,000 lb).[4][5] When the third stage and Earth-orbit departure fuel was included, Saturn V actually placed approximately 140 t (310,000 lb) into low Earth orbit.[6] The final launch of Saturn V in 1973 placed Skylab, a 77,111 kg (170,001 lb) payload, into LEO.
  • The Energia launcher was designed by the Soviet Union to launch up to 105 t (231,000 lb) to low Earth orbit.[7] Energia launched twice in 1987/88 before the program was cancelled by the Russian government successor to the Soviet Union, but only the second flight payload reached orbit. On the first flight, launching the Polyus weapons platform (approximately 80 t (180,000 lb)), the vehicle failed to enter orbit due to a software error on the kick-stage.[7] The second flight successfully launched the Buran orbiter.[8]

The NASA Space Shuttle differed from traditional rockets in that the orbiter was essentially a reusable stage that carried cargo internally. Buran was intended to be a reusable copy of the Space Shuttle Orbiter, but not a rocket stage as it had no rocket engines (except for on-orbit maneuvering). It relied entirely on the disposable launcher Energia to reach orbit.


  • Falcon Heavy is rated to launch 63.8 t (141,000 lb) to low Earth orbit (LEO) in a fully expendable configuration and an estimated 57 t (126,000 lb) in a partially reusable configuration, in which only two of its three boosters are recovered.[9][10][a] As of September 2020 the latter configuration is planned to fly in early 2021, but with a much smaller payload being launched to geostationary orbit. The first test flight occurred on 6 February 2018, in a configuration in which recovery of all three boosters was attempted, with Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster of 1,250 kg (2,760 lb) sent to an orbit beyond Mars.[12][13] A second and third flight have launched payloads of 6,465 kg (14,253 lb)[14] and 3,700 kg (8,200 lb).[15]


Rocket Configuration Organization Nationality LEO payload Maiden orbital flight First >50t payload Operational Reusable Launch Cost
Saturn V Apollo/Skylab NASA  United States 140 t (310,000 lb)A 1967 1967 Retired No US$1.23 billion (2019)
N1 L3 OKB-1  Soviet Union 95 t (209,000 lb) None None Failure No 3.0 billion rubles (1971)
Energia NPO Energia  Soviet Union 100 t (220,000 lb)C 1987 1987 Payload canceled No US$764 million (1985)
Falcon Heavy ExpendedD SpaceX  United States 63.8 t (141,000 lb)[16] Not yetD Not yet Operational but mass and configuration untestedD No US$150 million (2018)
Recoverable side boostersE 57 t (126,000 lb)[9] 2021 (planned)[17]D Not yet Operational but mass and configuration untestedD PartiallyE US$90 million (2018)
Starship Super Heavy SpaceX  United States 100–150 t (220,000–330,000 lb)[18]F 2021 (planned)[19] N/A Development Fully US$2 million (aspirational)[20]
SLS Block 1 NASA  United States 95 t (209,000 lb)[21] 2022 (planned)[22] N/A Development No US$500 million (2019) to US$2 billion (2019)
Block 1B 105 t (231,000 lb)[23] TBA N/A Development No Unknown
Block 2 130 t (290,000 lb)[24] TBA N/A Development No Unknown
921 rocket CALT  China 70 t (150,000 lb)[25] 2025 (planned)[26] N/A Development No Unknown
Long March 9 CALT  China 140 t (310,000 lb)[27] 2030 (planned)[26] N/A Development No Unknown
Yenisei Yenisei JSC SRC Progress  Russia 103 t (227,000 lb) 2028 (planned)[28] N/A Development No Unknown
Don 130 t (290,000 lb) 2030 (planned) N/A Development No Unknown

^A Includes mass of Apollo command and service modules, Apollo Lunar Module, Spacecraft/LM Adapter, Saturn V Instrument Unit, S-IVB stage, and propellant for translunar injection; payload mass to LEO is about 122.4 t (270,000 lb)[29]
^C Required upper stage or payload to perform final orbital insertion
^D Falcon Heavy has only flown in a configuration where all three boosters are intended to be recovered, which has a theoretical payload limit of around 45 tonnes; the first flight in a configuration where one booster core is deliberately expended is planned for July 2021.
^E Side booster cores recoverable and centre core intentionally expended. First re-use of the side boosters was demonstrated in 2019 when the ones used on the Arabsat-6A launch were reused on the STP-2 launch.
^F Does not include dry mass of spaceship

Proposed designs[edit]

Chinese proposals[edit]

Long March 9, a 140 t (310,000 lb) to LEO capable rocket was proposed in 2018[30] by China, with plans to launch the rocket by 2028. The length of the Long March-9 will exceed 90 meters, and the rocket would have a core stage with a diameter of 10 meters. Long March 9 is expected to carry a payload of 140 tonnes into low-Earth orbit, with a capacity of 50 tonnes for Earth-Moon transfer orbit.[31]

Indian proposals[edit]

In India, there have been multiple mentions about concept of various heavy and super-heavy rocket designs and configurations, capable of putting 50 to 100 tonnes in LEO and 20 to 35 tonnes in GTO in various presentations from ISRO officials which were studied in 2000s and 2010s.,[32][33] mostly speculated to be a variant of Unified Launch Vehicle powered by clustered SCE-200 engines, currently under development.[34][35][36] ISRO has confirmed to be conducting preliminary research for the development of a super heavy-lift launch vehicle which is planned to have a lifting capacity of over 50-60 tonnes (presumably into LEO).[37]

Russian proposals[edit]

Yenisei,[38] a super heavy-lift launch vehicle using existing components instead of pushing the less-powerful Angara A5V project, was proposed by Russia's RSC Energia in August 2016.[39]

A revival of the Energia booster was also proposed in 2016, also to avoid pushing the Angara project.[40] If developed, this vehicle could allow Russia to launch missions towards establishing a permanent Moon base with simpler logistics, launching just one or two 80-to-160-tonne super-heavy rockets instead of four 40-tonne Angara A5Vs implying quick-sequence launches and multiple in-orbit rendezvous. In February 2018, the КРК СТК (space rocket complex of the super-heavy class) design was updated to lift at least 90 tonnes to LEO and 20 tonnes to lunar polar orbit, and to be launched from Vostochny Cosmodrome.[41] The first flight is scheduled for 2028, with Moon landings starting in 2030.[28][needs update]

US proposals[edit]

The Space Launch System (SLS) is a US government super heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle, which has been under development by NASA in a well-funded program for nearly a decade, and is currently slated to make its first flight on November 4, 2021.[42] As of 2020, it is slated to be the primary launch vehicle for NASA's deep space exploration plans,[43][44] including the planned crewed lunar flights of the Artemis program and a possible follow-on human mission to Mars in the 2030s.[45][46][47]

The SpaceX Starship system is a two-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicle being privately developed by SpaceX, consisting of the Super Heavy booster as the first stage and a second stage, also called Starship.[48][49] It is designed to be a long-duration cargo and passenger-carrying spacecraft.[50] Testing of the second stage is underway, and an orbital test of the full rocket is planned for either 2021 or 2022.[51][52][53]

Blue Origin has plans for a project following their New Glenn rocket, termed New Armstrong, which some media sources have speculated will be a larger launch vehicle.[54]

Cancelled designs[edit]

Comparison of Saturn V, Sea Dragon and Interplanetary Transport System
Comparison of Space Shuttle, Ares I, Saturn V and Ares V

Numerous super-heavy lift vehicles have been proposed and received various levels of development prior to their cancellation.

As part of the Soviet crewed lunar project to compete with Apollo/Saturn V, the N1 rocket was secretly designed with a payload capacity of 95 t (209,000 lb). Four test vehicles were launched from 1969 to 1972, but all failed shortly after lift-off.[55] The program was suspended in May 1974 and formally cancelled in March 1976.[56][57] The Soviet UR-700 rocket design concept competed against the N1, but was never developed. In the concept, it was to have had a payload capacity of up to 151 t (333,000 lb)[58] to low earth orbit.

During project Aelita (1969-1972), the Soviets were developing a way to beat the Americans to Mars. They designed the UR-700m, a nuclear powered variant of the UR-700, to assemble the 1,400 t (3,100,000 lb) MK-700 spacecraft in earth orbit in two launches. The rocket would have a payload capacity of 750 t (1,650,000 lb). The only Universal Rocket to make it past the design phase was the UR-500 while the N1 was selected to be the Soviets' HLV for lunar and Martian missions.[59]

The General Dynamics Nexus was proposed in the 1960s as a fully reusable successor to the Saturn V rocket, having the capacity of transporting up to 450–910 t (990,000–2,000,000 lb) to orbit.[60][61]

The UR-900, proposed in 1969, would have had a payload capacity of 240 t (530,000 lb) to low earth orbit. It never left the drawing board.[62]

The American Saturn MLV family of rockets was proposed in 1965 by NASA as successors to the Saturn V rocket.[63] It would have been able to carry up to 160.880 t (354,680 lb) to Low earth orbit. The Nova designs were also studied by NASA before the agency chose the Saturn V in the early 1960s.[64]

Based on the recommendations of the Stafford Synthesis report, First Lunar Outpost (FLO) would have relied on a massive Saturn-derived launch vehicle known as the Comet HLLV. The Comet would have been capable of injecting 230.8 t (508,800 lb) into low earth orbit and 88.5 t (195,200 lb) on a TLI making it one of the most capable vehicles ever designed.[65] FLO was cancelled during the design process along with the rest of the Space Exploration Initiative.[citation needed]

The U.S. Ares V for the Constellation program was intended to reuse many elements of the Space Shuttle program, both on the ground and flight hardware, to save costs. The Ares V was designed to carry 188 t (414,000 lb) and was cancelled in 2010.[66]

The Shuttle-Derived Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle ("HLV") was an alternate super heavy-lift launch vehicle proposal for the NASA Constellation program, proposed in 2009.[67]

A 1962 design proposal, Sea Dragon, called for an enormous 150 m (490 ft) tall, sea-launched rocket capable of lifting 550 t (1,210,000 lb) to low Earth orbit. Although preliminary engineering of the design was done by TRW, the project never moved forward due to the closing of NASA's Future Projects Branch.[68][69]

The Rus-M was a proposed Russian family of launchers whose development began in 2009. It would have had two super heavy variants: one able to lift 50-60 tons, and another able to lift 130-150 tons.[70]

SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System was a 12 m (39 ft) diameter launch vehicle concept unveiled in 2016. The payload capability was to be 550 t (1,210,000 lb) in an expendable configuration or 300 t (660,000 lb) in a reusable configuration.[71] In 2017 the 12 m design was succeeded at SpaceX by a 9 m (30 ft) diameter concept Big Falcon Rocket which was renamed as SpaceX Starship.[72]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ A configuration in which all three cores are intended to be recoverable is classified as a heavy-lift launch vehicle since its maximum possible payload to LEO is under 50,000 kg.[11][10]


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Further reading[edit]