First SLS/Orion Launch Slips to December 2019, At Best

First SLS/Orion Launch Slips to December 2019, At Best

NASA revealed today that the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) with an uncrewed Orion spacecraft, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), is slipping by at least a year.  In 2014, NASA committed to a date of November 2018.  Now it is shooting for December 2019 although its review concluded that June 2020 was the likely date taking into account possible manufacturing and production risks.  The head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, Bill Gerstenmaier, will testify to a House subcommittee tomorrow (Thursday) about the program’s status.

Congress directed NASA to build SLS in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act after President Obama cancelled the Constellation program that was underway during the George W. Bush Administration.  The Act also directed NASA to build a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) for use with the SLS to take crews beyond low Earth orbit.

Artist’s concept of the Space Launch System launching an Orion spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Under Constellation, NASA was developing the Ares I and Ares V rockets and the Orion spacecraft with the goal of returning astronauts to the lunar surface by 2020 with eventual trips to Mars.

Ares I and V were terminated by the Obama Administration, which initially did not plan to replace them with a NASA-led launch vehicle development effort.  It wanted to focus on developing “game changing” propulsion technologies and decide on what new rocket to build later.

Congress, however, insisted that NASA develop its own new “heavy lift” rocket — SLS — without delay.

NASA chose to retain the Orion spacecraft from the Constellation program to be the congressionally-directed MPCV.  Lockheed Martin is Orion’s prime contractor.  The program is managed at Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.

President Obama’s plan was to bypass a return to the lunar surface and focus instead on sending people to Mars by the 2030s.  A rendezvous with an asteroid was a steppingstone to that end.  The Trump Administration cancelled Obama’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) soon after taking office.  Vice President Pence has said that the Trump Administration wants astronauts to return to the Moon and someday go on to Mars.  That was not reflected in President Trump’s FY2018 budget request, however.

The key is having a rocket and crew spacecraft to accomplish the job.  Commercial space advocates argue that rockets being built by private sector companies can do that (SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or Blue Origin’s New Glenn, for example) and there is no need for NASA to fund its own.  The SLS program continues to have strong congressional support, however.  SLS is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.  Boeing is the prime contractor.

SLS eventually will be able to launch 130 metric tons (MT) into low Earth obit, similar to the Saturn V rocket that sent Apollo astronauts to the Moon.  The version NASA is working on now is smaller, however.  It will be able to place 70 MT into low Earth orbit.  SLS will evolve into more capable versions over time.

NASA makes formal cost and schedule commitments to Congress and the Administration for its programs at a milestone called Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C).  SLS reached KDP-C in 2014 and NASA committed to a cost for development of $7.021 billion from February 2014 through EM-1, which at the time was planned for November 2018.  If “formulation” costs are included, NASA said the total is $9.695 billion.

Orion reached its KDP-C threshold in 2015.  Orion will fly without a crew on EM-1.  The first flight with a crew is the next one, EM-2.  NASA committed to a cost of $6.77 billion from October 2015 through EM-2, which it said would be in 2023.  The cost estimate excludes funds spent prior to KDP-C.  The Orion program began in 2006, so all the money spent between then and October 2015 is not included in that estimate.  Although NASA committed to 2023, NASA officials have routinely been saying they are managing to an internal date of 2021, two years earlier.

The third component of the program is Exploration Ground Systems (EGS), also called Ground Systems Development & Operations (GSDO) — the hardware and systems at Kennedy Space Center needed to launch SLS and Orion.  GSDO reached KDP-C in 2014.  NASA committed to a cost of $1.844 billion from FY2014 through EM-1.

After the KDP-C commitments are made, if cost growth or schedule slips exceed certain thresholds set in law (so-called Nunn-McCurdy limits) NASA must submit a “breach” report to Congress explaining why and recertifying the necessity of the program.  There are two thresholds — increases of 15 percent or 30 percent — with different reporting requirements.

Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot.

In NASA’s announcement today, Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said the SLS review concluded that although “possible manufacturing and production schedule risks indicate a launch date of June 2020, the agency is managing to December 2019.”

NASA said that SLS  and EGS are still within the “baseline commitments” established at their KDP-C milestones. “The costs for EM-1 up to a possible June 2020 launch date remain within the 15 percent limit for SLS and slightly above for ground systems.”  As for Orion, the announcement today said only that the commitment is through EM-2 with no further elaboration.

NASA asserted that the first flight of SLS/Orion “remains on track for 2023.” That is technically accurate since 2023 is the date the agency committed to at Orion’s KDP-C milestone, but, as noted, NASA officials have been saying 2021, setting up expectations that 2021 is the real date.  Congress has been appropriating more money than requested to help achieve it.

Today’s announcement is certain to be a disappointment to many in Congress if not a surprise.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) and NASA’s Office of Inspector General have been warning of delays, and NASA concurred with the GAO’s assessment in April 2017 that it could not meet the late 2018 date.

NASA also announced today that it would move up the date for a test of Orion’s launch abort system.  The system would pull the spacecraft away from the rocket in the case of a launch emergency to ensure the crew’s safety.  The test will now take place in April 2019.

The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow at 9:30 am ET to receive an update from Gerstenmaier on SLS/Orion/EGS.  Sandy Magnus, the Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) also will testify.  A former astronaut, she flew on the shuttle four times, including its final flight, STS-135, in 2011.  She also was a member of the Trump Administration’s NASA transition team.

The hearing will be webcast on the committee’s website and YouTube channel.

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