Engineers at NASA, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne are making good progress on the initial version of the agency’s planned Space Launch System (SLS) for deep-space human exploration, but it’s the advanced configuration that may actually drive some innovation in the field.

The first few flights will use the 70-metric-ton-capable version of the launcher. But Congress wants a beefier, 130-metric-ton rocket for serious exploration, as well as mix-and-match versions in between to launch big space telescopes and other scientific hardware, and the U.S. space agency is starting to spend some money to get there.

Beginning this month, 26 industrial and academic organizations will share as much as $48 million in NASA study funds. The titles of some of the selected proposals give a clue to the possibilities they represent for rocket propulsion in general.

Experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will be funded to develop “a new modeling approach for rotating cavitation instabilities in rocket engine turbopumps.”

Their colleagues at Penn State will be working to characterize “aluminum/alumina/carbon interactions under simulated rocket motor conditions.” Numeric simulations of subsonic and supersonic film cooling will be validated at the University of Maryland.

In industry, engineers at Orbital Technologies Corp., of Madison, Wis., will work on “hybrid precision casting for regeneratively cooled thrust chamber components,” while ATK will develop advanced “affordable composite structures.” “Structural weight reduction” will also be the goal of work at Collier Research and Development Corp., of Newport News, Va.”

The work could lead to more efficient rocket propulsion and stronger, lighter-weight engines and structures. “Engaging with academia and industry gives us the opportunity to take advantage of the ingenuity and expertise beyond NASA,” says Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier, who heads the NASA Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.