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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 vehiclesEdit


  • 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 a 77,111 kg (170,001 lb) 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, before the program was cancelled: the Polyus weapons platform at approximately 80 t (180,000 lb) and Buran orbiter, only one of which reached orbit. The system was designed to launch up to 105 t (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 differed from traditional rockets in that both launched what was essentially a reusable, manned stage that carried cargo internally.

Operational, but unproven as super heavy-liftEdit

  • 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] Neither of these configurations have been flown as of May 2019. 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]. All three configurations are operational in the sense of being 'available to procure' after all necessary test flights completed, but the super-heavy-lift classification remains unproven until such a heavy payload has been launched.


Rocket Configuration LEO payload First flight First >50t payload Operational Reusable
Saturn V Apollo 140 t (310,000 lb)A 1967 1967 Retired No
Space Shuttle 122.5 t (270,142 lb)B 1981 1981 Retired Partially
Energia Buran 100 t (220,000 lb)C 1987 1987 Retired Partially
Falcon Heavy ExpendedD 63.8 t (141,000 lb) N/AD N/A UnprovenD No
Recoverable side boostersE 57 t (126,000 lb)[10] N/AD N/A UnprovenD PartiallyE
SLS Block 1 95 t (209,000 lb)[15] 2021 (planned)[16] N/A Development No
Block 1B 105 t (231,000 lb)[17] 2024 (planned)[18] N/A Development No
Block 2 130 t (290,000 lb)[19] 2029 (planned)[20] N/A Development No
BFR 150 t (330,000 lb)[21]F 2020 (planned)[22][23] N/A Development Fully
Long March 9 140 t (310,000 lb)[24] 2028 (planned)[25] N/A Development No
Yenisei Yenisei 103 t (227,000 lb)[26] 2028 (planned)[27][26] N/A Development No
Don 130 t (290,000 lb)[26] 2030 (planned)[26] N/A Development No

^A Includes mass of Apollo Command/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)[28]
^B Includes mass of orbiter and payload during STS-93; deployable payload is 27.5 t (61,000 lb)
^C Required upper stage or payload to perform final orbital insertion
^D Falcon Heavy has not yet flown in a configuration that would allow lifting 50 tonnes to LEO.
^E Side booster cores recoverable and centre core expended
^F Does not include dry mass of spaceship

Proposed designsEdit

The Space Launch System (SLS) is a super heavy-lift launch vehicle currently under development in the U.S. by NASA.[29] The Block 1 configuration is currently targeted for launch in June 2020 but a slip to 2021 is likely,[16] with other configurations of increasingly higher lift capacities from 2023 to 2029.[20] Block 1 will be capable of launching a minimum of 70 t (150,000 lb) to low-Earth orbit, and approximately 26 t (57,000 lb) to a trans-lunar injection point.[30][31]

The 140 t (310,000 lb) to LEO capable Long March 9 has been proposed by China.[32] It has a targeted capacity of 50 t (110,000 lb) to lunar transfer orbit and first flight by 2030.[33]

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.[34][35] 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.[34] 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.[36] The project is called Yenisei[37] and the first flight is scheduled for 2028, with Moon landings starting in 2030.[27]

Cancelled designsEdit

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).[38] The program was suspended in May 1974 and formally cancelled in March 1976.[39][40]

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, 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 t (1,210,000 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.[41][42]

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 t (1,210,000 lb) in an expendable configuration (equal to the Sea Dragon) or 300 t (660,000 lb) in a reusable configuration.[43] In 2017, it was succeeded by BFR.

See alsoEdit


  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 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]


  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. ^ a b "Capabilities & Services". SpaceX. Retrieved 13 February 2018.
  12. ^ Elon Musk [@elonmusk] (30 April 2016). "@elonmusk Max performance numbers are for expendable launches. Subtract 30% to 40% for reusable booster payload" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  13. ^ Chang, Kenneth (6 February 2018). "Falcon Heavy, SpaceX's Big New Rocket, Succeeds in Its First Test Launch". The New York Times. Retrieved 6 February 2018.
  14. ^ "Tesla Roadster (AKA: Starman, 2018-017A)". 1 March 2018. Retrieved 15 March 2018.
  15. ^ Harbaugh, Jennifer, ed. (9 July 2018). "The Great Escape: SLS Provides Power for Missions to the Moon". NASA. Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  16. ^ a b Mack, Eric (14 March 2019). "NASA is building the world's biggest rocket, but its debut might have to wait". CNET. Retrieved 8 April 2019.
  17. ^ "Space Launch System" (PDF). NASA Facts. NASA. 11 October 2017. FS-2017-09-92-MSFC. Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  18. ^ Sloss, Philip (11 September 2018). "NASA updates Lunar Gateway plans". Retrieved 17 September 2018.
  19. ^ Creech, Stephen (April 2014). "NASA's Space Launch System: A Capability for Deep Space Exploration" (PDF). NASA. p. 2. Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  20. ^ a b Gebhardt, Chris (6 April 2017). "NASA finally sets goals, missions for SLS – eyes multi-step plan to Mars". Retrieved 21 August 2017.
  21. ^ Elon Musk [@elonmusk] (23 May 2019). "Aiming for 150 tons useful load in fully reusable configuration, but should be at least 100 tons, allowing for mass growth" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  22. ^ "The first SpaceX BFR should make orbital launches by 2020". 19 March 2018. Retrieved 14 October 2018.
  23. ^
  24. ^ Mizokami, Kyle (20 March 2018). "China Working on a New Heavy-Lift Rocket as Powerful as Saturn V". Popular Mechanics. Retrieved 20 May 2018.
  25. ^ Wong, Brian (20 September 2018). "Long March 9 will take 140 tons to low-earth orbit starting 2028". Next Big Future. Retrieved 1 October 2018.
  26. ^ a b c d "Russia's super-heavy rocket to deliver landing/launch module to Moon in 2029 – report". RT. Retrieved 15 March 2019.
  27. ^ a b Zak, Anatoly (8 February 2019). "Russia Is Now Working on a Super Heavy Rocket of Its Own". Popular Mechanics. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  28. ^
  29. ^ "Space Launch System" (PDF). NASA Facts. NASA. 2016. FS-2016-02-04-MSFC. Retrieved 14 April 2018.
  30. ^ "Space Launch System" (PDF). NASA Facts. NASA. 11 October 2017. FS-2017-09-92-MSFC. Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  31. ^ "Space Launch System Lift Capabilities" (PDF). NASA. 12 February 2018. Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  32. ^ Covault, Craig (18 July 2012). "First Look: China's Big New Rockets". AmericaSpace.
  33. ^ "China achieves key breakthrough in multiple launch vehicles". Space Daily. Retrieved 19 August 2017.
  34. ^ 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.
  35. ^ "«Роскосмос» создаст новую сверхтяжелую ракету". Izvestia (in Russian). 22 August 2016.
  36. ^ "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.
  37. ^ Zak, Anatoly (19 February 2019). "The Yenisei super-heavy rocket". RussianSpaceWeb. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  38. ^ "N1 Moon Rocket".
  39. ^ 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.
  40. ^ 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.
  41. ^ Grossman, David (3 April 2017). "The Enormous Sea-Launched Rocket That Never Flew". Popular Mechanics. Retrieved 17 May 2017.
  42. ^ “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
  43. ^ "Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species" (PDF). SpaceX. 27 September 2016. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 September 2016. Retrieved 29 September 2016.

Further readingEdit

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