A montage of super heavy-lift launch vehicles to scale
|Name||Super heavy-lift launch vehicle|
|Operators||Various space organisations|
|Preceded by||Heavy-lift launch vehicle|
|Propulsion||Various liquid-fueled engines and solid motors|
A super heavy-lift launch vehicle can lift to low Earth orbit more than 50 metric tons (110,000 lb) by United States (NASA) classification or 100 metric tons (220,000 lb) by Russian classification. It is the most capable launch vehicle classification by mass to orbit, exceeding that of the heavy-lift launch vehicle classification. Crewed lunar and interplanetary missions are often developed around these launch vehicles' payload capacity.
Many early super heavy-lift launch vehicle concepts were made in the 1960s, such as the Sea Dragon. During the Space Race, the Saturn V and N1 were built by the United States and Soviet Union. After the Saturn V's successful Apollo program and the N1's failures, the Soviets' Energia launched twice in the 1980s, once with the Buran spaceplane. The next two decades saw multiple concepts drawn out once again, most notably Shuttle-derived vehicles and Rus-M, but none would be built. In the 2010s, super heavy-lift launch vehicles received interest once again, leading to the launch of the Falcon Heavy and the Space Launch System, and the development of Starship, Long March, and Yenisei rockets.
|Rocket||Configuration||Organization||Nationality||LEO payload||Maiden orbital flight||First >50 t payload||Operational||Reusable||Launches (success / total)||Launch cost||Launch cost (2020 USD, millions)||Cost / Ton of payload (2020 USD, millions)|
|Saturn V||Apollo/Skylab||NASA||United States||140 t (310,000 lb)A||1967||1967||Retired
|No||12 / 13||US$1.23 billion (2019)||US$1,245||US$8.9|
|N1||L3||OKB-1||Soviet Union||95 t (209,000 lb)||None||None||Failure
|No||0 / 4||3.0 billion roubles (1971)||US$1,500||US$16|
|Energia||NPO Energia||Soviet Union||100 t (220,000 lb)B||1987||1987||Retired
|No||1 / 2||US$764 million (1985)||US$1,838||US$18|
|Falcon Heavy||Recoverable side boostersC||SpaceX||United States||57 t (126,000 lb)||2022||Not yet||Operational but mass untested||PartiallyC||4 / 4||US$90 million (2018)||US$92||US$1.6|
|Expended||63.8 t (141,000 lb)||2024 (planned)||Not yet||Operational but mass and configuration untested||No||—||US$150 million (2018)||US$154||US$2.4|
|SLS||Block 1||NASA||United States||95 t (209,000 lb)D||2022||2022||Operational||No||1 / 1||US$2.2 billion (2021)||US$2,100||US$22.1|
|Block 1B||105 t (231,000 lb)||2027 (planned)||—||Development||No||—||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown|
|Block 2||130 t (290,000 lb)||2031 (planned)||—||Development||No||—||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown|
|Starship||Super Heavy||SpaceX||United States||150 t (330,000 lb)E||NET Late February 2023||—||Testing||Fully||—||Projected US$<10 million (2022)||US$<10||US$<0.07|
|Long March 5G||CALT||China||70 t (150,000 lb)||2027 (planned)||—||Development||No||—||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown|
|Long March 9||CALT||China||160 t (350,000 lb)||2030 (planned)||—||Development||Partially||—||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown|
|Yenisei||Yenisei||JSC SRC Progress||Russia||103 t (227,000 lb)||2028 (planned)||—||Development||No||—||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown|
|Don||130 t (290,000 lb)||2030 (planned)||—||Development||No||—||Unknown||Unknown||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)
^B Required upper stage or payload to perform final orbital insertion
^C 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.
^D Includes mass of Orion spacecraft, European Service Module, Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, and propellant for translunar injection
^E Does not include dry mass of spaceship
Long March 5G was first proposed in 2018 as a concept for the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program. Long March 9, a 160 t (350,000 lb) to LEO capable rocket was proposed in 2018 by China, with plans to launch the rocket by 2028. The length of the Long March-9 will exceed 114 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 160 tonnes into low-Earth orbit, with a capacity of 53 tonnes for Earth-Moon transfer orbit. Development was approved in 2021.
Yenisei, 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.
A revival of the Energia booster was also proposed in 2016, also to avoid pushing the Angara project. 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. The first flight is scheduled for 2028, with Moon landings starting in 2030. It looks like this proposal has been at least paused.
The SpaceX Starship system is a two-stage-to-orbit fully 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. It is designed to be a long-duration cargo and passenger-carrying spacecraft. Testing of the second stage is underway, and an orbital test of the full rocket is planned for the second half of 2022 at the earliest.
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.
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. The program was suspended in May 1974 and formally cancelled in March 1976. 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) 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.
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.
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.
The American Saturn MLV family of rockets was proposed in 1965 by NASA as successors to the Saturn V rocket. It would have been able to carry up to 160,880 kg (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.
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. FLO was cancelled during the design process along with the rest of the Space Exploration Initiative.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. In 2017 the 12 m evolved into a 9 m (30 ft) diameter concept Big Falcon Rocket which was renamed as SpaceX Starship.
Small: 0–2 t payloads; Medium: 2–20 t payloads; Heavy: 20–50 t payloads; Super Heavy: > 50 t payloads
...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....