NASA officials said they have completed a rigorous review of SLS - the heavy-lift, exploration class rocket under development to take humans beyond Earth orbit and to Mars - and approved the programme's progression from formulation to development, something no other exploration class vehicle has achieved since the agency built the space shuttle.

"We are on a journey of scientific and human exploration that leads to Mars. And we're firmly committed to building the launch vehicle and other supporting systems that will take us on that journey," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

For its first flight test, SLS will be configured for a 70-metric-tonne lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit.

In its most powerful configuration, SLS will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tonnes, which will enable missions even farther into our solar system, including such destinations as an asteroid and Mars.

This decision comes after a thorough review known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), which provides a development cost baseline for the 70-metric tonne version of the SLS of USD 7.021 billion from February 2014 through the first launch and a launch readiness schedule based on an initial SLS flight no later than November 2018, NASA said.

"After rigorous review, we're committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we're going to stand behind that commitment," said Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who oversaw the review process.

"The Space Launch System Programme has done exemplary work during the past three years to get us to this point," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters here.

"We will keep the teams working towards a more ambitious readiness date, but will be ready no later than November 2018," said Gerstenmaier.

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