Super heavy-lift launch vehicle

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Comparison of Energia, Falcon Heavy, Long March 9, SLS Block 1, New Glenn 3-stage, SLS Block 1B Crew, N1, BFR, Saturn V, SLS Block 1B Cargo, SLS Block 2 Crew, and SLS Block 2 Cargo

A super heavy-lift launch vehicle (SHLLV) is a launch vehicle capable of lifting more than 50,000 kg (110,000 lb) of payload into low Earth orbit (LEO).[1][2]

Flown vehicles[edit]


  • Saturn V, with an Apollo program payload of a Command Module, Service Module, and Lunar Module. The three had a total mass of 45,000 kg (99,000 lb).[3][4] When the third stage and Earth-orbit departure fuel was included, Saturn V actually placed 140,000 kg (310,000 lb) into low Earth orbit.[5] The final launch of Saturn V placed a 77,111 kg payload into LEO.
  • The Space Shuttle orbited a combined[a] 122,534 kg (270,142 lb) when launching the Chandra X-ray Observatory on STS-93.[6] Chandra and its two-stage Inertial Upper Stage booster rocket weighed 22,753 kg (50,162 lb).[7]
  • Energia launched two payloads, only one of which reached orbit, before the program was cancelled: the Polyus weapons platform at approximately 80,000 kg (180,000 lb) and Buran. The system was designed to launch up to 105,000 kg (231,000 lb) to low Earth orbit.[8][9] Polyus failed to enter orbit due to a software error on the kick-stage.

The Space Shuttle and Buran orbiter differed from traditional rockets in that both launched what was essentially a reusable, manned stage that carried cargo internally.


  • Falcon Heavy is rated to launch 63,800 kg (140,700 lb) to low Earth orbit (LEO) in a fully expendable configuration. In a partially reusable configuration in which its two boosters are recovered, it can launch an estimated 57,000 kg (126,000 lb) to LEO.[10][11][b] Its first launch occurred on 6 February 2018, but it has not yet launched a heavy or super-heavy payload.


Rocket Configuration LEO payload First flight First >50t payload Operational Reusable
Saturn V Apollo 140 t (310,000 lb) 1967 1967 Retired No
Space Shuttle 122.5 t (270,142 lb)A 1981 1981 Retired Partially
Energia Buran 100 t (220,000 lb) 1987 1987 Retired Partially
Falcon Heavy Expendable (0/3)B 63.8 t (141,000 lb) N/AD N/A UnprovenD No
Part. reusable (2/3)C 57 t (126,000 lb)[10] N/AD N/A UnprovenD Partially
SLS Block 1 95 t (209,000 lb)[12] 2020 (planned)[13] N/A Development No
Block 1B 105 t (231,000 lb)[14] 2023 (planned)[15] N/A Development No
Block 2 130 t (290,000 lb)[16] 2029 (planned)[17] N/A Development No
New Glenn 2-stage 45+ t (99,000+ lb)[18] 2020 (planned)[18] N/A Development Partially
3-stage TBAE N/A N/A Development Partially
BFR 150 t (330,000 lb)[19]F 2022 (planned) N/A Development Fully
Long March 9 140 t (310,000 lb)[20] 2030s (planned) N/A Development No

^A Includes mass of orbiter and payload during STS-93; deployable payload is 27.5 t (61,000 lb)
^B No stages recovered, fairing recovery possible
^C Booster cores recovered, center core expended, fairing recovery possible
^D As of 2018, it has not yet flown in this configuration; only flown in fully reusable configuration with all three cores making landing attempts
^E Though payload capacity has not been officially announced, the 45,000 kg (99,000 lb) payload for the two-stage variant[18] and thrust levels for the first stage suggest placement of the vehicle in the super-heavy lift class.[21]
^F Does not include dry mass of spaceship; including it would make the payload 235 t (518,000 lb)

Proposed designs[edit]

The Space Launch System (SLS) is a super heavy-lift launch vehicle currently under development in the U.S. by NASA.[22] The Block 1 configuration is currently targeted for launch in June 2020,[13] with other configurations of increasingly higher lift capacities from 2023 to 2029.[17]

The 140,000 kg (310,000 lb) to LEO capable Long March 9 has been proposed by China.[23] It has a targeted capacity of 50 tonnes to lunar transfer orbit and first flight by 2030.[24]

In August 2016, Russia's RSC Energia announced plans to develop a super heavy-lift launch vehicle using existing components instead of pushing the less-powerful Angara A5V project.[25][26] This would 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.[25] 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.[27]

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 Lunar Project four N1 rockets with a payload capacity of 95,000 kg (209,000 lb), were launched but all failed shortly after lift-off (1969-1972).[28] The program was suspended in May 1974 and formally cancelled in March 1976.[29][30]

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 188,000 kg (414,000 lb) and was cancelled in 2010, though much of the work has been carried forward into the SLS program.

A 1962 design proposal, Sea Dragon, called for an enormous 150 m (490 ft) tall, sea-launched rocket capable of lifting 550,000 kg (1,200,000 lb) to low Earth orbit. While the design was validated by TRW, the project never moved forward due to the closing of NASA's Future Projects Branch.[31][32]

SpaceX's first publicly released design of its Mars transportation infrastructure was the ITS launch vehicle unveiled in 2016. The payload capability was to be 550,000 kg (1,200,000 lb) in an expendable configuration (equal to the Sea Dragon) or 300,000 kg (660,000 lb) in a reusable configuration.[33] In 2017, it was succeeded by BFR.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Space Shuttle orbiter itself contributed to reaching low Earth orbit therefore the validity of its inclusion as payload mass is debatable.
  2. ^ A partially reusable configuration where three cores are recovered is classified as a heavy-lift launch vehicle since payload to LEO is under 50,000 kg.


  1. ^ McConnaughey, Paul K.; et al. (November 2010). "Draft Launch Propulsion Systems Roadmap: Technology Area 01" (PDF). NASA. Section 1.3. Small: 0–2 t payloads; Medium: 2–20 t payloads; Heavy: 20–50 t payloads; Super Heavy: > 50 t payloads 
  2. ^ "Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation" (PDF). Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee. NASA. October 2009. p. 64-66. ...the U.S. human spaceflight program will require a heavy-lift launcher ... in the range of 25 to 40 mt ... this strongly favors a minimum heavy-lift capacity of roughly 50 mt.... 
  3. ^ "Apollo 11 Lunar Module". NASA. 
  4. ^ "Apollo 11 Command and Service Module (CSM)". NASA. 
  5. ^ Alternatives for Future U.S. Space-Launch Capabilities (PDF), The Congress of the United States. Congressional Budget Office, October 2006, pp. X,1, 4, 9 
  6. ^ "STS-93". Archived from the original on 18 January 2000. 
  7. ^ "Heaviest payload launched - shuttle". Guinness World Records. 
  8. ^ "Polyus". Encyclopedia Astronautica. Retrieved 14 February 2018. 
  9. ^ "Buran". Encyclopedia Astronautica. Retrieved 14 February 2018. 
  10. ^ a b Musk, Elon [@elonmusk] (12 February 2018). "Side boosters landing on droneships & center expended is only ~10% performance penalty vs fully expended. Cost is only slightly higher than an expended F9, so around $95M" (Tweet) – via Twitter. 
  11. ^ "Capabilities & Services". SpaceX. Retrieved 13 February 2018. 
  12. ^ "The Great Escape: SLS Provides Power for Missions to the Moon". NASA. May 2, 2018. Retrieved May 15, 2018. 
  13. ^ a b Clark, Stephen (20 November 2017). "NASA expects first Space Launch System flight to slip into 2020". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 24 May 2018. 
  14. ^ "Space Launch System" (PDF). The Boeing Company. 2013. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 23, 2015. Retrieved March 30, 2017. 
  15. ^ Gebhardt, Chris (22 September 2017). "SLS EM-1 & -2 launch dates realign; EM-3 gains notional mission outline". Retrieved 23 September 2017. 
  16. ^ Creech, Stephen (April 2014). "NASA's Space Launch System: A Capability for Deep Space Exploration" (PDF). NASA. 
  17. ^ a b Gebhardt, Chris (April 6, 2017). "NASA finally sets goals, missions for SLS – eyes multi-step plan to Mars". Retrieved August 21, 2017. 
  18. ^ a b c Foust, Jeff (7 March 2017). "Eutelsat first customer for Blue Origin's New Glenn". SpaceNews. Retrieved 5 April 2017. 
  19. ^ Elon Musk speech: Becoming a Multiplanet Species, 29 September 2017, 68th annual meeting of the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia
  20. ^ Mizokami, Kyle (20 March 2018). "China Working on a New Heavy-Lift Rocket as Powerful as Saturn V". Popular Mechanics. Retrieved 20 May 2018. 
  21. ^ Leahy, Bart (12 September 2016). "Blue Origin reveals New Glenn launch vehicle plans". Spaceflight Insider. Retrieved 9 October 2016. 
  22. ^ "Space Launch System" (PDF). NASA Facts. NASA. 2016. FS-2016-02-04-MSFC. Retrieved 14 April 2018. 
  23. ^ Covault, Craig (18 July 2012). "First Look: China's Big New Rockets". AmericaSpace. 
  24. ^ "China achieves key breakthrough in multiple launch vehicles". Space Daily. Retrieved 19 August 2017. 
  25. ^ a b "Russia's A5V moon mission rocket may be replaced with new super-heavy-lift vehicle". 22 August 2016. Energia and Roscosmos are “working on a super heavy-lift launch vehicle (SHLLV) that would use an engine that we already have, the RD-171,” Vladimir Solntsev told Izvestia newspaper. [...] The proposed new SHLLV would initially have a LEO lift of 80 tonnes with a potential to increase the figure to 120 tonnes or even 160 tonnes, according to Solntsev. 
  26. ^ "«Роскосмос» создаст новую сверхтяжелую ракету". Izvestia (in Russian). 22 August 2016. 
  27. ^ "РКК "Энергия" стала головным разработчиком сверхтяжелой ракеты-носителя" [RSC Energia is the lead developer of the super-heavy carrier rocket]. RIA Novosti. 2 February 2018. Retrieved 3 February 2018. 
  28. ^ "N1 Moon Rocket". 
  29. ^ Harvey, Brian (2007). Soviet and Russian Lunar Exploration. Springer-Praxis Books in Space Exploration. Springer Science+Business Media. p. 230. ISBN 978-0-387-21896-0. 
  30. ^ van Pelt, Michel (2017). Dream Missions: Space Colonies, Nuclear Spacecraft and Other Possibilities. Springer-Praxis Books in Space Exploration. Springer Science+Business Media. p. 22. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-53941-6. ISBN 978-3-319-53939-3. 
  31. ^ Grossman, David (3 April 2017). "The Enormous Sea-Launched Rocket That Never Flew". Popular Mechanics. Retrieved 17 May 2017. 
  32. ^ “Study of Large Sea-Launch Space Vehicle,” Contract NAS8-2599, Space Technology Laboratories, Inc./Aerojet General Corporation Report #8659-6058-RU-000, Vol. 1 – Design, January 1963
  33. ^ "Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species" (PDF). SpaceX. 27 September 2016. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 September 2016. Retrieved 29 September 2016. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Mallove, Eugene F.; Matloff, Gregory L. (1989). The Starflight Handbook: A Pioneer's Guide to Interstellar Travel. Wiley. ISBN 0-471-61912-4.