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Giant Rockets for Space ExplorationThroughout the history of human spaceflight, NASA and other space agencies have built some serious rockets: behemoths of space that aimed to send astronauts to the moon, Mars or elsewhere in deep space.
Take a look at some of the tallest rockets in history, and NASA's latest entry: the Space Launch System to fly in 2017.
This countdown was originally posted in September 2011. It was updated on Dec. 9, 2018.
NASA's Mighty Saturn VSlide 2 of 15
NASA's Mighty Saturn VThe reigning champion of giant rockets is NASA's massive Saturn 5, a three-stage booster used to launch American astronauts to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Like the Ares I-X and NASA shuttles, the towering Saturn V launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It stood 363 feet (110 meters) high and remains the most powerful rocket ever built, even though the last one flew in 1973.
The rocket could launch payloads of up to 45 tons to the moon, or 120 tons into Earth orbit. It weighed 6.5 million pounds (3 million kg) fully fueled at liftoff. The Ares I-X weighs 1.8 million pounds (816,466 kg), slightly less than the full Ares I rocket.
That last Saturn V was a modified version that launched NASA's Skylab space station. Smaller versions of the Saturn rocket were used to launch astronauts to Skylab, with the last one — a 224-foot (68-meter) Saturn 1B — launching in 1975 to fly Apollo astronauts to meet a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft during the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission.Slide 3 of 15
Ill-fated N-1Slide 4 of 15
Ill-fated N-1A close second in the giant rocket race is the former Soviet Union's N-1 rocket, an enormous booster designed to launch cosmonauts to the moon during the Space Race with the United States.
The giant rocket stood nearly 345 feet (104 meters) tall, had five distinct stages and resembled a huge, tapering cone that was about 55 feet (17 meters) wide at the base. During launch, it weighed 6.1 million pounds (2.7 million kg) and was envisioned to launch payloads of up to 95 tons to space to send cosmonauts to the moon, according to the Russian space history website Russianspaceweb.com. [Infographic: Moscow's Secret Moon Plan - The N-1 Rocket]
But the N-1 rocket never successfully reached space, despite four attempted launches. It exploded during all four attempts between 1969 and 1972.
The former Soviet Union did have other hefty rockets in its space launch inventory: the enormous D-1E and D-1 variants of the Proton used for the 1968 lunar probe missions and 1971 Salyut 1 space station launch. Neither came close to the N-1's towering stature.
Today, Russia still uses Proton rockets and smaller Soyuz boosters to launch satellites into orbit, though cosmonauts continue to ride only Soyuz rockets into orbit. The country is also developing a new family of Angara rockets.Slide 5 of 15
SpaceX Falcon HeavySlide 6 of 15
SpaceX Falcon HeavySpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket may not be the tallest rocket in use today, but at 230 feet (70 meters) it's pretty close.
And while it's not the tallest of the bunch, the Falcon Heavy rocket is currently the most powerful booster of the 21st century. It can launch payloads of up to 141,000 lbs. (64 metric tons) using two side boosters based on the company's Falcon 9 workhorse and a central core. That gives the Falcon Heavy 27 engines on its first stage to generate more than 5 million pounds force (22,819 kilonewtons) of thrust at liftoff — the same force as about 18 Boeing 747 jumbo jets at full power.
One bonus to the Falcon Heavy: It's designed to be partially reusable. SpaceX built the first-stage boosters to return to Earth for land or drone ship landings.Slide 7 of 15
Delta IV HeavySlide 8 of 15