Super heavy-lift launch vehicle

By Wikipedia Contributors

Launch vehicle capable of lifting more than 50 tonnes of payload into low earth orbit
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) of payload into low Earth orbit (LEO).[1][2]

Flown vehicles


  • Saturn V, with an Apollo program payload of a command module, service module, and Lunar Module. The three had a total mass of 45 t (99,000 lb).[3][4] When the third stage and Earth-orbit departure fuel was included, Saturn V actually placed 140 t (310,000 lb) into low Earth orbit.[5] The final launch of Saturn V placed Skylab, a 77,111 kg (170,001 lb) payload, into LEO.
  • The Space Shuttle orbited a combined[a] shuttle and cargo mass of 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]
  • The Energia system was designed to launch up to 105 t (231,000 lb) to low Earth orbit.[8] Energia launched twice before the program was cancelled, but only one flight 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.[8] The second flight successfully launched the Buran orbiter.[9]

The Space Shuttle differed from traditional rockets in that the orbiter was essentially a reusable stage that carried cargo internally. Buran was also a reusable spaceplane but not a rocket "stage" as it had no rocket engine (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.[10][11][b] As of September 2020[update] 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 a small payload of 1,250 kg (2,760 lb) sent to an orbit beyond Mars.[13][14] A second and third flight have launched a 6,465 kg (14,253 lb)[15] and 3,700 kg (8,200 lb)[16] payload.

Suborbital tests

  • N1, Soviet Moon rocket. Developed in late 1960s and early 1970s. Made 4 orbital launch attempts but did not reach orbit on any one of those flights. After the 4 failed launches, the project was cancelled in 1976.
  • SpaceX Starship, US commercial private rocket in active development. Made first test flights in late 2019, with high-altitude test flights starting in 2020.


Rocket Configuration Organization Nationality LEO payload Maiden flight First >50t payload Operational Reusable Launch Cost
Saturn V Apollo NASA  United States 140 t (310,000 lb)A 1967 1967 Retired No US$1.23 billion (2019)
N1 L3 Energia  Soviet Union 95 t (209,000 lb) 1969 (failed) N/A Cancelled No 3.0 billion rubles (1971)
Space Shuttle NASA  United States 27.5 t (61,000 lb)B 1981 1981G Retired Partially US$576 million (2012) to US$1.64 billion (2012)
Energia Energia  Soviet Union 100 t (220,000 lb)C 1987 1987 Retired No US$764 million (1985)
Falcon Heavy ExpendedD SpaceX  United States (private) 63.8 t (141,000 lb)[17] Not YetD Not Yet Operational but mass and configuration untestedD No US$150 million (2018)
Recoverable side boostersE 57 t (126,000 lb)[10] 2021 (planned)[18]D Not Yet Operational but mass and configuration untestedD PartiallyE US$130 million (2018)
Starship SpaceX  United States (private) 150 t (330,000 lb)[19]F 2021 (planned)[20] N/A Development Fully US$2 million (2019)
SLS Block 1 NASA  United States 95 t (209,000 lb)[21] 2021 (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]
^B Excludes mass of orbiter; Payload including orbiter during STS-93 is 122.5 t (270,000 lb)
^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 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
^G Since payload mass of all flights includes mass of orbiter, the maiden flight had a greater than 50 tonne payload despite no deployable payload.

Proposed designs

The Space Launch System (SLS) is a US 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 in November 2021.[30] As of 2020[update], it is slated to be the primary launch vehicle for NASA's deep space exploration plans,[31][32] including the planned crewed lunar flights of the Artemis program and a possible follow-on human mission to Mars in the 2030s.[33][34][35]

The SpaceX Starship is both the second stage of a reusable launch vehicle and a spacecraft that is being developed by SpaceX, as a private spaceflight project.[36] It is being designed to be a long-duration cargo and passenger-carrying spacecraft.[37] While it will be tested on its own initially, it will be used on orbital launches with an additional booster stage, the Super Heavy, where Starship would serve as the second stage on a two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle.[38] The combination of spacecraft and booster is called Starship as well.[39]

Long March 9, a 140 t (310,000 lb) to LEO capable rocket was proposed in 2018[40] 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.[41]

Yenisei,[42] 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.[43] A revival of the Energia rocket was also proposed in 2016, also to avoid pushing the Angara project.[44] 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.[45] The first flight is scheduled for 2028, with Moon landings starting in 2030.[28][needs update]

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.,[46][47] mostly speculated to be a variant of Unified Launch Vehicle powered by clustered SCE-200 engines, currently under development.[48][49][50] 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).[51]

Blue Origin has plans to build a larger rocket than their New Glenn currently under construction, termed New Armstrong.[52]

Cancelled designs

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 t (209,000 lb), were launched but all failed shortly after lift-off (1969-1972).[53] The program was suspended in May 1974 and formally cancelled in March 1976.[54][55] The Soviet UR-700 rocket design concept was competed against the N1, however the UR-700 was never developed. In the concept, it was to have had a payload capacity of up to 151 t (333,000 lb)[56] 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) and is the most capable rocket ever designed. It is often overlooked[by whom?] due to little information being known about the design. 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.[57]

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.[58][59]

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.[60]

The American Saturn MLV family of rockets was proposed in 1965 by NASA as successors to the Saturn V rocket.[61] 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.[62]

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.[63] 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.[64]

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.[65]

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.[66][67]

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.[68]

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.[69] 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.[70]

See also


  1. ^ The Space Shuttle orbiter is part of a stage of the launch vehicle (together with the Space Shuttle external tank), but is also itself a spacecraft capable of operating for extended periods with a crew in low Earth orbit. Whether the orbiter mass should be accounted as "payload", or the payload should be accounted as only the cargo and crew carried in the orbiter, may depend on the operational definition used, and hence is debatable. The validity of its inclusion on this page depends on this definition.
  2. ^ 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.[12][11]


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Further reading