It is no secret that NASA's Space Launch System is struggling to meet its program. The multi-billionaire launcher should transport humans and goods in deep space. The problem is that the agency has vocally committed to sending an American plane to the moon next year. The new NASA lunar taxi, called Orion, is almost ready to go. But his race – the big and bloated SLS – is still years from completion.
Wednesday morning, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine appeared before the US Senate Committee on Trade, Science and Transportation to discuss American leadership in space. During his testimony, he revealed an unexpected turning point. For the first time, Bridenstine said the agency would consider commercial rockets to get the crew's capsule off the ground. For NASA, traveling in deep space would no longer be SLS-o-bust.
"Now we better understand how difficult this project is," he explained, before the space program at NASA took a back seat. his vision for his next-generation rocket. In 201
Its inaugural launch was originally scheduled for 2018, but that date soon slipped in 2019, then in 2020, and now the officials do not they're not even sure times are feasible, but Bridenstine told Congress he wants NASA to hit its deadlines go on. "I want to be very clear," he said. "I think we, as an agency, must stick to our commitment. If we tell you and others that we will have the launch in June 2020 around the moon, I think we should launch around the moon in June 2020."
For meeting these deadlines, the administrator acknowledged that all options, including commercial rockets, should be considered. Bridenstine's comments were unexpected; for nearly a decade NASA has supported an SLS-only approach to send its astronauts into deep space. (Beginning the agency had limited its business partners to the dispatch of crews not beyond the orbit of the low Earth and vice versa). But with extremely tight deadlines and multiple technical delays it is now clear that SLS will almost certainly not be ready to fly in 2020.
Over the years, Orion's destination changed from Mars to the Moon, and even to the surface of an asteroid . But one thing was certain: on Orion's first incursion beyond the Earth, an unmanned capsule would complete a six-day moon circuit; this is the mission that Bridenstine now says could launch on top of a commercial rocket. Dubbed Exploration Mission 1 (or EM-1), it was also intended as the maiden voyage of SLS.
The snag is that Orion is too heavy for any commercial vehicle now in use to deposit it in the lunar orbit. Bridenstine acknowledged this in his testimony: "The challenge is that we don't have a rocket right now that can launch Orion and the European Service Module around the Moon." (Built by the European Space Agency, the service module will supply energy to Orion during the flight).
"This is what the SLS is," he added.
Instead, Bridenstine proposed that the mission could be done in phases. First, a missile would send Orion and the European Service Module into orbit around the Earth; a second rocket would launch a higher level separately. That top-level rocket would have to meet the duo in orbit and upgrade them to the moon. But even this is easier said than done, because the coupling technology needed to remove it does not yet exist.
"Between now and June of 2020, we should make it a reality," Bridenstine said.
But Bridenstine did not mention which missiles would carry out this mission. Currently, only two vehicles can carry large quantities of goods in space: SpaceX's Falcon Heavy and United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy.
The Falcon Heavy, which debuted last year, has so far only brought one Tesla into orbit, while the Delta IV Heavy carried a plethora of payloads, including a smaller version of the Orion spacecraft in 2014. (The heavy rocket -lift launched the capsule on a four-hour journey around the Earth on an experimental flight known as Exploration Flight Test- 1)
Switching to a commercial rocket for the EM-1 would bring a blow to the SLS program , which has been criticized for its huge budget (estimated at $ 14 billion) and its slow-speed development. But with the debut of Falcon Heavy, its reason for being has become less and less clear. (A Falcon Heavy can deliver almost 141,000 pounds to low earth orbit, while a Delta IV can carry 62,540 pounds and SLS a theoretical 209,000 pounds).
The big takeaway: If NASA can send Orione to the backside of private rockets, it is likely that future crewed missions, which have been scheduled for SLS, may also be. (Bridenstine told Congress that the agency will examine the commercial possibility as soon as possible). In a speech on Monday, the administrator explained that other elements of the planned Lunar Gateway – which is essentially a mini space station in orbit around the moon – can also be launched on commercial rockets.
But this is not the only shot at SLS this week. On Monday, the president released his budget request for 2020. In it, Trump proposed cuts that will reduce NASA's overall budget by two percent, or $ 21 billion. The cuts include development disruption on a second more powerful version of SLS; a request that eliminates the rocket from its greatest advantage: lifting capacity.
However, Bridenstine pointed out that the SLS is still necessary for the future of the Orion program and NASA's deep space ambitions. "The SLS, the largest rocket ever built in American history, is a critical piece of what the United States needs to build," he said in front of a crowd of NASA employees at Kennedy Space Monday center. "We need the SLS, and we need the Orion crew capsule."
The administration also stated that NASA's upcoming mission to Jupiter Europe's moon, scheduled for 2023, should be launched on a commercial rocket: a reversal of a 2015 congress mandate who said he has to fly on SLS. The budget proposal states that the use of a commercial rocket would save NASA over $ 700 million, allowing the agency to fund multiple new businesses. (The Obama administration has made the same proposal but has been denied by Congress.)
With these proposals that take away most of the SLS's capabilities, the heavy lift remains with only one mission: to launch Orion directly into the # 39 ; lunar orbit. But if NASA can launch the necessary Gateway components, including Orion, on commercial rockets, the case for SLS is becoming increasingly worn.
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