Todd May: NASA Will Decide SLS Launch Date “Soon”

Todd May: NASA Will Decide SLS Launch Date “Soon”

Todd May, Director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) said today that NASA will decide the date for the first Space Launch System (SLS) launch “soon.”  NASA had been planning for the first launch in December 2018, but recently conceded that it would slip to sometime in 2019 because of a combination of technical challenges and delays caused by severe weather in Louisiana, Texas, and Florida this year.

Todd May, Director, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. Photo credit: NASA.

May addressed the Space Transportation Association today on Capitol Hill.  He spoke with enthusiasm about Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to MSFC last month, the first visit to the center by a President or Vice President in more than 25 years.  Vice President Dan Quayle, who chaired the National Space Council under President George H.W. Bush, was the last in 1992.

The Space Council was not funded or staffed in the Clinton, George W. Bush or Obama administrations.  President Trump revived it, with Pence as its chair, in June.  It held its first meeting last week.  Pence has also visited NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, TX and Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Florida’s Space Coast.  MSFC is in Huntsville, AL.

All three of those centers are at the heart of NASA’s future human exploration program — the Space Launch System (being built at MSFC and its Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana), the Orion crew spacecraft (JSC), and Exploration Ground Systems (KSC).

All of them have been impacted by hurricanes and tornadoes this year, which has affected progress on the program.  May pointed out that the F3 tornado that hit Michoud in February went right through the building where the SLS core stage is being built.  Technical challenges also slowed progress on the core stage, especially with friction stir welding.

May said Pence’s visit was a real “boost to the team” and that Pence looked the SLS program manager in the eye and told him “the President wants to launch this rocket.”

Discussion in the space community these days often splits along the lines of traditional government-led programs (“old space”) versus entrepreneurial companies (“new space”), although NASA officials have been stressing that it is not one or the other, but both, that are needed for the future U.S. space program.

May agreed.  He said that “what we are witnessing today is the democratization and commercialization of spaceflight and space exploration, and like all technological revolution, the phenomenon is disruptive.  But it is ultimately good for our country and for all humankind.”  He identified two “transformative goals” for the U.S. space program as a whole — expanding capabilities beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) and developing foundational deep space systems and infrastructure; and enabling safe, sustainable development of commercial space technologies and services for LEO and paving the way for new markets and cooperative endeavors “from the Earth to the outer solar system.”

In his view, SLS is the cornerstone as well as a “catalyst for the future.”

He laid out the progress being made on SLS and other elements of the exploration program — Orion and exploration ground systems — and said NASA’s Program Management Council will meet “soon” to set a date for the first launch.  (His written text said “in just a few weeks,” but he said “soon.”)

That first launch, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will not carry a crew.  The first launch with a crew, EM-2, currently cannot take place for at least 33 months after the first because it will take that long to reconfigure the Mobile Transporter at Kennedy Space Center to accommodate an upgraded version of SLS with a new, taller, upper stage.

May recounted a recent visit by Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot when someone asked what keeps him up at night.  Lightfoot’s response was “I’m worried that NASA hasn’t flown in a long time.”

NASA’s last launch was the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, in 2011.  NASA contracts with commercial companies like United Launch Alliance (ULA), SpaceX,  and Orbital ATK to launch robotic spacecraft or send cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).  For transporting crews to and from ISS, it has had to rely to Russia since the shuttle program ended.  Two U.S. companies (SpaceX and Boeing) are developing “commercial crew”systems to once again enable launches of American astronauts on American rockets from American soil, but the companies will conduct those launches, not NASA.

Whenever EM-2 takes place, that will be the first time NASA itself conducts a countdown to put humans into space — a decade (or more) after STS-135.

The focus now is on EM-1.  When it launches “it will be a moment that propels our nation to the leading edge of human spaceflight — a return to missions that put the unreachable in reach….The world will be watching, and the United States will be leading by inspiration.”



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