NASA Studying Launching EM-1 On Commercial Rockets, Not SLS

NASA Studying Launching EM-1 On Commercial Rockets, Not SLS

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine made a bombshell announcement at a Senate hearing this morning that the agency is studying whether it can launch the uncrewed Orion spacecraft on its first mission around the Moon on commercial rockets instead of the Space Launch System (SLS).  Bridenstine expressed strong support for SLS and insisted plans for EM-2, the first flight with a crew, would not change.  Coupled with decisions revealed yesterday in NASA’s FY2020 budget request to delay planned SLS upgrades, however, some see this as a further indication that commercial rockets can do the job that SLS is designed to do, but faster and at less cost.

Testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Bridenstine said that NASA has a history of not meeting its schedules and he is trying to change that.

NASA’s launch date for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), a test flight of the SLS carrying an uncrewed Orion capsule, has slipped repeatedly.  Currently it is June 2020, but “last week it came to our attention that we’re not going to be able to maintain the schedule,” he revealed.

In response to a question from committee chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), who represents NASA’s Stennis Space Center where rockets like SLS are tested, Bridenstine defended SLS as “a critical capability.”  But “SLS is struggling to meet its schedule” to conduct EM-1 no later than June 2020. “We are now understanding better how difficult this project is and that it is going to take some additional time.”

“I want to be really clear.  I think we as an agency need to stick to our commitments.  Sir, if we tell you and others we are going to  launch in June 2020, around the Moon, which is what EM-1 is, I think we should launch around the Moon in June 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 Administrator Jim Bridenstine

In 2014, NASA used a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket to launch Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), an Earth-orbital flight test of an engineering model of the Orion crew module.  That was only the Orion capsule itself, not the service module or an upper stage, both of which are necessary for flights to the Moon.  Orion’s service module is being built by Europe through a barter arrangement with the European Space Agency (ESA) and is called the European Service Module (ESM).  The upper stage is the Boeing-built Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS).

Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) has been designed as a flight test of the first SLS, using an ICPS upper stage, sending the current version of Orion with the ESM, around the Moon.  It will be followed by EM-2, the first flight of the system with a crew.

Bridenstine conceded that no existing rocket can launch Orion with the ESM and the ICPS.  Only SLS has the capacity to do that.  Instead, he is studying whether two commercial rockets could be used, although he did not name which rockets.  One would launch the Orion/ESM, the other would launch ICPS, and the two would dock in Earth orbit and then continue with the flight plan around the Moon.

Orion/ESM and ICPS are not currently designed to dock with each other, however, so that would require additional work.

As for testing SLS, it already is scheduled for a full-up “Green Run” test at Stennis.  Bridenstine implied that ground test could substitute for the EM-1 flight test in getting ready for EM-2.

“The goal is to get back on track” he declared.

Wicker pointed out that it is 2019 already, but Bridenstine insisted that “here is the glory of the United States of America. We have amazing capability that exists right now that we can use off the shelf” to accomplish EM-1, while it would “not change the direction of the SLS and EM-2.”

The two most capable “off the shelf” rockets in the U.S. fleet right now are ULA’s Delta IV and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.  In an emailed response to about whether NASA has been in touch about Bridenstine’s idea, ULA said it “recognizes the unparalleled capabilities” of SLS and “[i]f asked, we can provide a description of the capabilities of our launch vehicles for meeting NASA’s needs, but acknowledge that these do not match the super heavy lift performance and mission capabilities provided by SLS” for exploration missions.”  SpaceX did not respond to a similar query by press time.

Bridenstine said he expects to know “in the next couple of weeks” whether this is possible.  “Every moment counts.”  He conceded that additional “help” might be needed from Congress to pay for it.

Wicker did not endorse the idea, but commented that  “I’d sure like to keep us on schedule.”

Wicker’s committee does not appropriate money.  That is the jurisdiction of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama).  SLS is managed by Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, AL.   MSFC Director Jody Singer first indicated that the SLS schedule is being reassessed during a talk on Capitol Hill last week.

Congress directed NASA to build SLS in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act and specified its capabilities in law.  The move was in reaction to the Obama Administration’s 2010 decision, as part of its FY2011 budget request, to cancel the Bush Administration’s Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020. Under Constellation, NASA was building a different set of rockets, Ares I and Ares V, and a crew capsule, Orion.

The Obama plan in the FY2011 budget request was simply to cancel Ares and Orion, not replace them.  Instead of building a new rocket, it proposed investing in “game-changing” propulsion technologies for 5 years before making a decision.  No destination for future human spaceflight was identified (though Obama gave a speech three months later where he proposed one — an asteroid), so no crew module was needed either.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress were outraged at the abrupt cancellation of Constellation.  Nor were they enthusiastic about Obama’s plan to enter into public-private partnerships to build new crew transportation systems to take astronauts to and from low Earth orbit (LEO) — what became known as the “commercial crew” program — instead of NASA building its own system.  The compromise in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act was allowing NASA to proceed with commercial crew, but also requiring NASA to build a new big rocket, SLS, and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to takes humans beyond LEO.  NASA kept Orion as the MPCV.

In 2014, NASA committed to launching SLS in November 2018, but the date slipped to December 2019 and then June 2020.  Apparently that date is slipping again.  The FY2020 NASA budget request delays development of upgraded capabilities for SLS so the program can focus on the initial version.

SLS has been criticized from the beginning by advocates of commercial systems that they argue can do the job faster and at less cost.  ULA, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX and Blue Origin are among the companies planning and/or developing more capable rockets than they have now, although SpaceX is the only one to fly one so far — the Falcon Heavy.


Note:  This article was updated with the quote from ULA.


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