Super heavy-lift launch vehicle

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]

Comparison of Energia, Falcon Heavy, Yenisei, Long March 9, SLS, N1, Saturn V, and Starship. Masses listed are the maximum payload to low Earth orbit in metric tons.

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[lower-alpha 1] 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 and Buran differed from traditional rockets in that both launched what was essentially a reusable stage that carried cargo internally.

Operational, but unproven as super heavy-lift

  • 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][lower-alpha 2] Neither of these super-heavy lift configurations have been flown or are being planned to fly as of June 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] Since the vehicle is operational but has not yet been demonstrated to launch payloads over 50 tonnes (110,000 lb) to orbit, it is as yet unproven as a super heavy-lift capable launch vehicle.


Rocket Configuration Organization Nationality LEO payload Maiden flight First >50t payload Operational Reusable
Saturn V Apollo NASA  United States 140 t (310,000 lb)A 1967 1967 Retired No
N1 L3 Energia  Soviet Union 95 t (209,000 lb) 1969 (failed) N/A Cancelled No
Space Shuttle NASA  United States 122.5 t (270,142 lb)B 1981 1981 Retired Partially
Energia Buran Energia  Soviet Union 100 t (220,000 lb)C 1987 1987 Retired Partially
Falcon Heavy ExpendedD SpaceX  United States 63.8 t (141,000 lb)[15] Not YetD Not Yet UnprovenD No
Recoverable side boostersE 57 t (126,000 lb)[10] Not YetD Not Yet UnprovenD PartiallyE
SLS Block 1 NASA  United States 95 t (209,000 lb)[16] 2021 (planned)[17] N/A Development No
Block 1B 105 t (231,000 lb)[18] 2024 (planned)[19] N/A Development No
Block 2 130 t (290,000 lb)[20] TBA N/A Development No
Starship SpaceX  United States 150 t (330,000 lb)[21]F 2020 (planned)[22][23] N/A Development Fully
Long March 9 China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology  China 140 t (310,000 lb)[24] 2028 (planned)[25] N/A Development No
Yenisei Yenisei JSC SRC Progress  Russia 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
New Armstrong Blue Origin  United States TBA[28] TBA N/A Proposed Partially or Fully

^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 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; to date it has only flown in the configuration that permits the possibility of recovery of the centre core (actually doing so is irrelevant) which is a configuration capable of lifting a maximum of 45 tonnes to LEO
^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

Proposed designs

The Space Launch System (SLS) is a US super heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle, which is under development as of August 2019. It is the primary launch vehicle of NASA's deep space exploration plans,[30][31] including the planned crewed lunar flights of the Artemis program and a possible follow-on human mission to Mars.[32][33][34]

The SpaceX Starship is a fully reusable second stage and space vehicle being privately[35] developed by SpaceX. It is being designed to be a long-duration cargo- and passenger-carrying spacecraft.[36] While it is being used today as an independent rocket for testing, 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.[37] The combination of spacecraft and booster is called Starship as well.[38] Beginning in mid-2019, prototype versions are being flown with Starship as an independent rocket in its own right—without any launch vehicle booster stage at all—as part of an extensive suborbital flight testing program to get launch and landing working and iterate on a variety of design details, particularly with respect to atmospheric reentry of the vehicle.[39][35][40][41]

New Armstrong is a super heavy-lift rocket proposed by Blue Origin. Payload and timeline are unknown.[42]

Long March 9, a 140 t (310,000 lb) to LEO capable rocket has been proposed by China.[43] It has a targeted capacity of 50 t (110,000 lb) to lunar transfer orbit and first flight by 2030.[44]

Yenisei,[45] a super heavy-lift launch vehicle using existing components instead of pushing the less-powerful Angara A5V project, has been proposed by Russia's RSC Energia in August 2016.[46][47] 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.[46] 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.[48] The first flight is scheduled for 2028, with Moon landings starting in 2030.[27]

ISRO is 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).[49]

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).[50] The program was suspended in May 1974 and formally cancelled in March 1976.[51][52]

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 1400 t (3,000,000 lb) MK-700 spacecraft in earth orbit in 2 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 due too little information being know about the design. The only Universal Rocket to make it passed the design phase was the UR-500 while the N1 was selected to be the Soviets HLV for lunar and mars missions.[53]

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 Artemis 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. 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.[54][55]

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 or 300 t (660,000 lb) in a reusable configuration.[56] In 2017, it was succeeded by Starship.[57]

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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  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....
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Further reading