What is the World’s Most Powerful Rocket?

Is it NASA's Space Launch System, or SpaceX's Starship? The answer depends on more than just total thrust.

The 2020s are stacking up to be the next major era in space exploration, thanks to organizations like NASA and private space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin.

As a result, humans are setting their sights on heavenly bodies once again. NASA and SpaceX are both actively developing capabilities to send humans back to the moon and Mars. NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and SpaceX’s Starship are currently the top contenders for getting us there, but one question remains for space enthusiasts across the globe—what is the world’s most powerful rocket?

While we could simply compare the total thrust of each rocket, there are several factors that should be considered to accurately award the title of “World’s Most Powerful Rocket.”

Let’s compare notes.

Thrust

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS): Currently, NASA has three different configurations planned for the SLS. The first configuration, Block 1, will have a total thrust of 8.8 million pounds—15 percent more than that of the Saturn V rocket.

SLS is powered by four RS-25 engines, which only produce a quarter of the total thrust. The rest is provided by the shuttle-derived solid rocket boosters. According to NASA, they’re the “most powerful boosters ever built for spaceflight.”

SLS’s Block 1B configuration is expected to put out slightly more thrust than Block 1 at 8.9 million pounds. Both of those are shadowed by the third configuration, Block 2, which will produces 9.5 million pounds of thrust.

SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy Booster: Super Heavy Booster: 17 million pounds of thrust, according to SpaceX.com.

Which rocket has more thrust? SpaceX Super Heavy

With an estimated 17 million pounds of thrust, SpaceX’s Super Heavy is expected to produce more than twice the thrust of SLS, if development goes as planned. 

Payload Capacity

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS): For the Artemis I mission, the SLS will use its Block 1 configuration, which includes a payload capacity of 27 tons—that’s nearly 60,000 pounds to orbit beyond the moon. Blocks 1B and 2 have increasingly larger payloads at 38 and 46 tons, respectively.

SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy Booster: Super Heavy’s capacity to launch payloads to low Earth orbit (LEO) is expected to be  “in excess of” 220,000 pounds (100 metric tonnes), according to SpaceX.com. 

Which has more payload capacity? Super Heavy to LEO–SLS to the moon.

The answer to this question depends on the mission. Super Heavy can carry heavier payloads to LEO, but the Starship spacecraft on top of Super Heavy will require refueling in orbit to travel to the moon and beyond. Compare that to SLS, which can launch a payload to deep space without refueling. 

Reusability

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS): While NASA is capable of designing reusable rockets, the agency chose not to make SLS reusable.

SLS chief engineer John Blevins told FLYING “reusability was actually more expensive and gave us less launch availability, less mission success, than not having reusability. So, that was a conscious choice by the agency back in 2011, 2012, and I think it still stands for the mission as we get started today.”

SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy Booster: The Super Heavy Booster will be able to return to Earth for repeated launches, saving hundreds of millions of dollars in production costs. 

Which is reusable? SpaceX’s Super Heavy Booster

Cost

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS): According to NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, the estimated cost of the SLS core stage and solid rocket boosters during the first four Artemis missions will cost $2.2 billion per launch. Producing both the SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft, along with operating costs, will drive the total price per launch to $4 billion. 

As part of the bigger picture, the Artemis program’s budget is expected to reach $93 billion by 2025.

SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy Booster: Aside from the estimated billions of dollars spent to develop Super Heavy, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has reportedly projected that each Starship launch will cost less than $10 million, mostly due to the reusability of the rocket system. 

Which rocket costs more? NASA’s SLS

Operational Status

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS): As of reporting, the SLS is currently undergoing another attempt at its wet dress rehearsal at Kennedy Space Center, where it currently stands at Launch Complex 39B.

NASA’s SLS is expected to launch this summer, and will make an uncrewed trip around the moon and back. Subsequent launches for the Artemis program will take place over the next few years, eventually landing the first woman and person of color on the moon.

SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy Booster: Although a Starship spacecraft has been stacked on top of a Super Heavy Booster at SpaceX’s South Texas launch facility, Super Heavy apparently remains in development and has not yet been declared operational. SpaceX can’t lift off from the Texas location until it passes a required FAA environmental review, which is scheduled to be released in early June. 

Which is operational? So far, only NASA’s SLS is known to be operational.

Maximum Distance

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS): When the Artemis program finally launches its first crewed mission, it will take humans the farthest anyone’s ever been from our pale blue dot. Artemis I will reach 280,000 miles away from Earth—40,000 miles beyond the moon. However, the SLS rocket system itself is not designed to make the entire trip. The SLS solid rocket boosters are designed to separate from Artemis about two minutes after launch and its core stage will fall away about six minutes later. After that, Artemis’s Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage will propel the Orion spacecraft toward the moon. 

SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy Booster: Super Heavy is designed to carry payloads to low Earth orbit (LEO)—defined by NASA as less than 1,200 miles above Earth. 

Which rocket booster can travel farther? Let’s call it even.

Size

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS): Artemis I, crowned by the Orion spacecraft, currently stands at 322 feet tall. Configurations Block 1B Crew and Block 2 Crew will be slightly taller at 365 feet, thanks to an added interstage and exploration upper stage. Separately, the rocket booster stands 212 feet tall, with a diameter measuring 27.6 feet, according to NASA. The SLS core stage can store up to 730,000 gallons of super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that fuel the rocket’s RS-25 engines.

SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy Booster: Super Heavy stands 230 feet high (69 meters), according to SpaceX.com, with a diameter of 30 feet (9 meters). 

Which rocket is larger? Super Heavy is about 18 feet taller and 2.4 feet wider. 

Modality

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS): While the SLS will not be reusable, NASA has planned out six of the aforementioned configurations for the rocket with varying stats.

  • Block 1
    • Orion Spacecraft
    • 27-ton payload
    • 322 feet tall
  • Block 1 Cargo
    • 5m Class Fairing
    • 27-ton payload
    • Up to 313 feet tall
  • Block 1B Crew
    • Orion Spacecraft
    • Exploration Upper Stage
    • 38-ton payload
    • 365 feet tall
  • Block 1B Cargo
    • 8.4m Fairing Short
    • Exploration Upper Stage
    • 42-ton payload
    • 325 feet tall
  • Block 2 Crew
    • Orion Spacecraft
    • Exploration Upper Stage
    • 43-ton payload
    • 365 feet tall
  • Block 2 Cargo
    • 8.4m Fairing Long
    • Exploration Upper Stage
    • Evolved Boosters
    • 46-ton payload
    • 355 feet tall

SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy Booster: SpaceX has not reported any plans for more than one major iteration of its Super Heavy Booster.

Which rocket has the most iterations? NASA’s SLS

So, which is more powerful? It appears pretty even, but it looks like time will be the ultimate judge.

Login

New to Flying?

Register

Already have an account?