Commercial Alternative to SLS for EM-1 Rejected

Commercial Alternative to SLS for EM-1 Rejected

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said today that commercial rockets cannot substitute for the Space Launch System on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).  He revealed that NASA was studying that possibility at a Senate hearing on March 13.  The analysis showed it would not be feasible within the available time frame and budget, however.  Bridenstine is determined to launch EM-1, an uncrewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft around the Moon, in June 2020 despite reports of new SLS schedule delays.

The news was overshadowed by Vice President Pence’s declaration that the United States will land astronauts at the Moon’s South Pole by 2024.  He addressed the White House National Space Council, which he chairs, at a meeting in Huntsville, AL where SLS was a major theme.  Pence strongly criticized the news that SLS, which is already behind schedule and over cost, will not be ready for its first flight until 2021.  It originally was supposed to fly in November 2018, but that already had slipped to December 2019-June 2020.

Boeing is the prime contractor for SLS, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Pence did not mince words, saying the Administration is committed to Marshall, but not “to any one contractor. If our current contractor can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones that will.”

Bridenstine defended SLS, however, and said he is confident it will fly in June 2020.  In a press release issued later in the day, he summarized the results of the commercial alternative study and reiterated NASA’s support for SLS.

Earlier today I was also at Marshall Space Flight Center for an all-hands to reinforce our commitment to SLS with the workforce. We discussed my recent announcement that NASA would consider all options to fly Orion around the Moon on schedule. I shared the analysis we conducted to assess flying the Orion on different commercial options. While some of these alternative vehicles could work, none was capable of achieving our goals to orbit around the Moon for Exploration Mission-1 within our timeline and on budget. The results of this two-week study reaffirmed our commitment to the SLS. More details will be released in the future. — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine

Bridenstine will testify to the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee tomorrow afternoon, and to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee next Tuesday.  The committees webcast their hearings on their websites and NASA TV often broadcasts those that involve the Administrator.

The hearings nominally are on NASA’s FY2020 budget request, which does not include funding for the accelerated lunar landing program Pence just announced.  NASA was planning to 2028 for the first humans back on the Moon.  A NASA spokesman said via email to this evening that NASA “is still working details of how to meet an accelerated human return to the Moon, including the resources required to do it.”

With 2024 just 5 years away, those details will have to emerge quickly.  Pence told Bridenstine to use “any means necessary” to achieve the goal.  Bridenstine replied that NASA “is up to the task” and in the press release said the agency is creating a new Moon to Mars Mission Directorate to focus its efforts.  But winning congressional support is essential.  As the famous saying goes, “no bucks, no Buck Rogers.”


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