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What Is a Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle?
October 27, 2010

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A heavy lift launch vehicle is a type of rocket. "Launch vehicle" is a term used to describe rockets that launch people or payloads. Rockets come in many sizes. Some rockets are more powerful than others. Different rockets have different purposes. Heavy lift rockets are the most powerful type of rockets. NASA's Saturn V (5) rocket was the most powerful heavy lift launch vehicle to fly successfully. Other heavy lift launch vehicles include the Titan IV (4) and Delta IV (4) Heavy, Russia's Proton and Europe's Ariane 5.

How Are Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles Used?
Heavy lift launch vehicles can do things that other rockets cannot do. They can launch larger payloads into low Earth orbit. The Saturn V rocket, for example, launched an entire space station, Skylab, in one launch. The Saturn V could launch about 130 tons into Earth orbit. That's about as much weight as 10 school buses.

Heavy lift launch vehicles can also lift large satellites into higher orbits. These higher orbits can offer special benefits. For example, a satellite around 22,000 miles from the surface of Earth can be in geostationary orbit. In that orbit, the satellite orbits Earth once per day. As a result, it stays over the same point on Earth's surface. This is useful for communications satellites.

Heavy lift launch vehicles can also be used for missions to other worlds. The Saturn V rocket made it possible for people to land on the moon. That rocket could launch about 50 tons to the moon. That's about the same as four school buses. If humans are going to return to the moon or explore other worlds, a heavy lift launch vehicle could be used to make that possible. As powerful as it is, the space shuttle cannot travel to the moon. The engines are powerful, but not powerful enough to push the heavy orbiter there.

What Does the Future Hold for Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles?
[image-78]NASA has a new plan for the future of space exploration. The new plan will eventually lead to human exploration of Mars. Many steps will be needed in order to get there. New technologies will have to be developed. The president has told NASA to work on a new Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle. The new vehicle will use many things NASA has learned about rockets. It will also use brand new technologies. Nobody knows yet what the new rocket will be like. Engineers are working to figure out the best way to prepare to explore the solar system.
 



Words to Know:
Payload: cargo, passengers, supplies, or equipment carried by a vehicle in addition to what is necessary for its operation
Low Earth orbit: a path that a vehicle flies that is between 80 km and 2000 km (50 to 1243 miles) above Earth



More About Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles:
› What Is a Rocket?
› What Was the Saturn V?


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David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services

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A Saturn V rocket launches
The Saturn V was NASA's first heavy lift launch vehicle.
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NASA
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An astronaut walks on Mars
Heavy lift launch vehicles could someday let humans explore Mars.
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NASA
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Page Last Updated: February 25th, 2014
Page Editor: NASA Administrator