A rocket is used to carry a spacecraft from Earth’s surface to space, usually to low Earth orbit or beyond, and is sometimes called a launch vehicle.
Although rockets may appear similar, no two are alike because they are complex devices with millions of pieces and systems that must be calculated and constructed to work together. A rocket is chosen based on the spacecraft’s mission requirements. For example, the farther away from Earth the spacecraft needs to go, the bigger and more powerful the rocket needs to be.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with the Lucy spacecraft aboard is seen in this 2 minute and 30 second exposure photograph as it launches from Space Launch Complex 41, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
Space Launch System
Combining power and capability, NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is part of NASA’s backbone for deep space exploration and Artemis. SLS is the only rocket that can send Orion, astronauts, and cargo directly to the Moon in a single launch.
These commercial rockets are launching crews to low Earth orbit through partnerships with NASA.
A new generation of rockets capable of carrying astronauts to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station provides expanded utility, additional research time, and broader opportunities for discovery on the orbiting laboratory.
With a view of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building at left, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket soars upward from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 23, 2021, carrying the company’s Crew Dragon Endeavour capsule.
Commercial Resupply Rockets
These companies are successfully resupplying the space station.
Safe, reliable, and affordable commercial access low Earth orbit is a critical component of NASA’s path for human exploration. The research being conducted aboard the space station made possible by cargo transportation services also advances NASA’s future deep space exploration objectives.
A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft is seen on the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad-0A, Thursday, October 1, 2020, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
Explore additional uncrewed rockets delivering spacecraft that observe Earth, visit other planets and explore the universe.
A wet dress rehearsal is underway for Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket at Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand on April 28, 2023.
Spaceships and Rockets
What is a spacecraft?
A spacecraft is a vehicle that flies in space. It can carry astronauts, cargo, or instruments to their destination, or it can be the destination. The International Space Station is a spacecraft, just like the smaller vehicles that deliver crew and cargo to it.
Spacecraft launch on rockets and have their own propulsion and navigation systems that take over after they separate from the rocket, propelling them to other worlds in our solar system. Their main purpose lies in transporting payloads — or anything within the vehicle beyond what is essential to operate in space — to their destination. For example, for the Artemis II Moon mission, a human crew and other experiments will be carried aboard the Orion spacecraft.
A camera mounted on one of Orion’s four solar arrays captured this image of the Moon on flight day 17 of the 25.5-day Artemis I mission from a distance of more than 222,000 miles.
NASA’s Orion spacecraft is built to take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before. On Artemis missions, Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities. Orion will launch on NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System.
These spacecraft are carrying cargo and scientific investigations to and from the space station.
Commercial resupply missions are changing the way NASA does business, helping to build a strong American commercial space industry and freeing the agency to focus on developing the next-generation rocket and spacecraft that will allow us to travel farther in space than ever before.
The Canadarm2 robotic arm grips Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus space freighter as the International Space Station orbits 262 miles above the north Atlantic Ocean.
Commercial Crew Spacecraft
These spacecraft are carrying astronauts to and from the space station.
For more than 22 years, humans have lived and worked on humanity’s home in low Earth orbit. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is delivering human transportation to and from the International Space Station from the United States through a partnership with American private industry.
The Soyuz MS-22 rocket launches three Expedition 68 crew members to the International Space Station.
Ride to the moon?
Human Landing Systems
Bringing astronauts from orbit around the Moon onto lunar soil
NASA’s commercial providers, Blue Origin and SpaceX, are building the human landing systems that will carry Artemis astronauts to the lunar surface and back to lunar orbit for their ride home to Earth aboard Orion.
Side-by-side illustrations of the SpaceX Starship lunar lander and the Blue Origin Blue Moon lunar lander.
Gateway Deep Space Logistics
As astronauts conduct missions at Gateway and prepare for lunar surface missions, they will need deliveries of critical pressurized and unpressurized cargo, science experiments, and supplies like sample collection materials. In March 2020, NASA announced SpaceX as the first U.S. commercial provider under the Gateway Logistics Services contract to deliver cargo and other supplies to Gateway.