Boeing and NASA have announced a new $2.8 billion contract, directing the aerospace giant to build the main segment of the coming Space Launch System (SLS).

The SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built, and the booster will often be paired with the Orion space capsule. This combination will be the next step for NASA, as they rebuild the capability for astronauts to reach space from American soil.

A heavy-lift vehicle, the SLS will be capable of putting payloads - both robotic and human - into deep space. The system is critical to NASA plans to send a human crew to Mars sometime in the 2030's. The vehicle pairing will also launch the first crewed mission to visit an asteroid. That plan will entail capturing one of the rocky bodies and bringing it to an orbit around our moon, where space travelers can visit it more easily.

The launch vehicle will have several possible configurations, depending on the nature of the specific mission. For the maiden flight, the rocket will be matched with an Orion space capsule, and launched past low-Earth orbit. Although this will test the capability of the SLS to send a human crew into space, the mission will be entirely automated. This is something that was not possible during the Apollo or Space Shuttle programs.

On the earliest missions, the booster will have the capacity to lift 77 tons of material beyond low-Earth orbit. Future launches will have lift capabilities up to 143 tons into space.

Orion will have only two unoccupied flights before missions carrying humans begin. The first of these, Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1, is scheduled for launch in December 2014. The year 2017 will bear witness to the next test, Exploration Mission-1. People will fly for the first time aboard Orion in the year 2021.

"The launch abort system (LAS) is a key reason that Orion is intended to become the safest spacecraft ever built. In an emergency it could activate to pull the crew module and the astronauts it will carry away from the launch pad and the rocket in milliseconds" NASA officials wrote on their Web site.

The first test flight of the SLS launch system will carry Orion 15 times further out into space than the orbit of the International Space Station (ISS). A majority of time during the orbit will be spent within the Van Allen belts, powerful bands of radiation surrounding the Earth. This will allow program managers the chance to test shielding that will be essential to deep-space missions.

The space agency is currently working with Boeing, finishing a Critical Design Review, the last step before manufacture of the rocket core begins.

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