A Kennedy Space Center team is studying whether commercial rockets could launch NASA’s Orion capsule on its first test flight around the moon instead of the space agency’s own rocket.
The struggling Space Launch System rocket, designed to be the most powerful rocket ever, is not expected to be ready to launch the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1, or EM-1, as promised next year.
As a result, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine recently told Congress that the agency would consider alternatives including launching Orion to the moon with heavy-lift commercial rockets.
KSC’s Launch Services Program, which buys rockets for and oversees launches of NASA science missions, is helping to study that option, Center Director Bob Cabana said Tuesday.
“Hopefully, once these teams complete all their work, we’ll have the data so that we can make an informed decision on what the best path forward is in order to keep our commitment,” Cabana told the National Space Club Florida Committee in Cape Canaveral. “We’ve got to accelerate that. We’ve got to make sure that we stay on track.”
At the same time, NASA is studying what it would take to get the 322-foot SLS rocket ready to fly next year, which Bridenstine said remains the preferred option.
The agency had committed to launching the EM-1 mission as early as this December and no later than June 2020, after spending roughly $10 billion on the rocket.
“We are now understanding better how difficult this project is, and that it is going to take some additional time,” Bridenstine told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation last week. “I think we as an agency need to stick to commitments.”
The SLS features a massive core stage more than 200 feet tall, powered by four space shuttle main engines and a pair of solid rocket boosters slightly larger than those flown by shuttles.
The Boeing-built core stage has proven technically challenging, and suffered some delays beyond its control, like tornado damage to an assembly facility near New Orleans in 2017 and the recent partial federal government shutdown.
A commercial launch alternative for EM-1 poses challenges, too. Bridenstine said it would take two launches, one to put the Orion crew capsule and its European-built service module in orbit, and another to launch a rocket stage that could propel the spacecraft out to the moon. Those pieces first would have to dock in low Earth orbit, something they were not initially designed to do.
“So between now and June of 2020, we would have to make that the reality,” said Bridenstine.
He noted that a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launched the first Orion test flight, called Exploration Flight Test-1, in 2014. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which offers twice as much liftoff thrust as ULA’s rocket, presumably would be considered, too.
Bridenstine said studies would be completed within a couple of weeks, and that funding commercial launches to keep the EM-1 mission on track for next year “might require some help from the Congress.” SLS would still launch astronauts in Orion on EM-2.
His comments came days after he visited KSC to unveil the Trump administration’s proposed 2020 budget, which would postpone work to develop a more powerful version of the SLS, known as Block 1B.
If approved, that plan also would have ramifications for KSC, which is close to awarding a contract to build a second launch tower designed to support the larger rocket.
The second Mobile Launcher, for which Congress has already appropriated roughly $400 million, would be superfluous without the bigger rocket that had been expected to launch the first astronauts in Orion.
At KSC, Bridenstine called the SLS a “transformational, strategic capability for the United States of America.” But his acknowledgment that less expensive commercial rockets could launch Orion to the moon appeared to undercut a core rationale for the project, prompting pushback from supporters.
“NASA has a history of not meeting launch dates, and I’m trying to change that,” the NASA administrator said.
Cabana, meanwhile, on Tuesday reiterated a promise he’s made for years about the ground systems that KSC is preparing to support SLS launches, including a Vehicle Assembly Building high bay, mobile launch tower and launch pad 39B.
“KSC will not be the reason that we don’t launch on time,” he said.