NASA is building the world’s biggest rocket, but its debut might have to wait

NASA’s Space Launch System is its next-generation rocket designed with deep space missions in mind.

NASA

NASA publicly floated the idea this week of setting aside its big new rocket in favor of a commercial one for a launch around the moon next year. 

Space Launch System (SLS) “is struggling to meet its deadline,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testified before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Wednesday. “I think we should launch around the moon in June of 2020 and I think it can be done. We need to consider as an agency all options to accomplish that objective. Some of those options would include launching the Orion Crew Capsule and European Service Module on a commercial rocket.”

NASA has been planning what it calls “Exploration Mission 1″ (EM-1) to be the big debut of its new spaceship, Orion, and its huge SLS rocket for next June. EM-1 would see SLS send an uncrewed Orion into space from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. A second stage rocket would then be used to propel Orion to an orbit around the moon for about six days before returning to Earth.

Orion and SLS are now a decade in the making, and in that same span of time, SpaceX has turned the commercial launch industry on its head with its cheaper, reusable rockets and the successful demonstration of Falcon Heavy.

Now, NASA’s deadline to launch Orion is coming up quick and its leader is raising the possibility of not waiting for SLS to catch up. Next year we might see the space agency send its long-awaited new craft on its maiden voyage atop a Falcon Heavy or United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket instead.

Bridenstine clarified his comments in a blog post Thursday.

“Our goal would be to test Orion in lunar orbit in 2020 and free up the first SLS for the launch of habitation or other hardware in 2021,” he wrote. “This would get us back on schedule for a crewed lunar orbital mission in 2022 with the added bonus of a lunar destination for our astronauts.”

Bridenstine said NASA will conduct a review of the idea and release the results no more than two weeks from now. “NASA is committed to building and flying the SLS,” he added.

SLS “allows crew and payloads to get to the Moon, and eventually to Mars, safer and more efficiently than any temporary solution used to get back on track,” Bridenstine said. 

The move is in line with NASA priorities handed down from the White House that call for working more closely with commercial space companies. A NASA initiative that’s separate from Orion and SLS currently hopes to send payloads to the surface of the moon as soon as this year with the help of commercial companies. 

Bridenstine referred to SLS on Wednesday as “a critical piece of what the United States of America needs to build … that can put really big objects into space and, in fact, into deep space and orbit around the moon.”

That last bit is important because a so-called “gateway” in orbit around the moon is a key component of NASA’s current push to lay the foundation for a permanent presence on the lunar surface. 

While Bridenstine says he hopes to set SLS aside for the moment until its full power is needed for heavier lifting, that could also change. By the time the Space Launch System is finally complete, new alternatives like Elon Musk’s promised massive Starship rocket may also be available and present a more attractive alternative. 

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