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The Boeing Co. (BA - Analyst Report) secured a sizable contract from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to develop the core stage of the largest ever Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. After completing the Critical Design Review (CDR) on the core stage, Boeing finalized a $2.8 billion contract with the space agency to enter into full production.

The SLS intends to send humans beyond the moon's orbit for the first time. It is designed to carry 143 tons yet the rocket's initial flight-test configuration will provide lift capacity of 77 tons. The 321 feet long advanced launch system will be powered by four RS-25 rocket engines built by Aerojet Rocketdyne of Canoga Park. Boeing’s avionics teams as well as other teams across Southern California are working to prepare the SLS for a first test flight in 2017.

The CDR is a significant milestone for NASA as the last deep-space human rocket – the Saturn V – was designed and reviewed way back in 1961. Three stages of the Saturn V were manufactured by Boeing and partners, the then Douglas Aircraft and North American Aviation. The Saturn V – a liquid-fueled rocket – was designed to land astronauts on the moon.

The U.S. has in recent times stepped up its space program and the defense contractors specializing in space systems see a lot of opportunity here in the wake of dwindling offers from other core defense areas.

Leading defense contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT - Analyst Report) is in charge of developing the Orion crew vehicle. The SLS rocket will carry the Orion spacecraft that can hold up to four astronauts beyond the low earth orbit to test the performance of the integrated system.

Boeing’s Boeing Defense, Space & Security unit is responsible for this NASA venture and the division is one of the world's largest defense, space and security businesses specializing in innovative and capabilities-driven customer solutions. It is the world's largest and most versatile manufacturer of military aircraft.

Boeing carries a Zacks Rank #2 (Buy). Investors interested in the aerospace and defense industry may also consider stocks like General Dynamics Corp. (GD - Analyst Report) and Embraer SA (ERJ - Analyst Report). Both these stocks carry a Zacks Rank #2 (Buy).
 

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