Industry and legislators defend the SLS


WASHINGTON – The surprise announcement by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on March 13 that NASA plans to move Mission 1 Exploration from the space launch system has surprised many industry players, but some have reacted defending the use of the SLS.

Bridenstine, who testified before the Senate Commerce Committee, said the agency was planning to use two commercial launchers, likely provided by SpaceX and / or United Launch Alliance, to launch the Orion spacecraft and a upper floor to propel the spacecraft not the moon. A decision on the feasibility of doing so could be made in the coming weeks, he said.

Bridenstine said the study was motivated by persistent delays in the development of the SLS, which NASA no longer expects to be ready for launch by mid-2020, as previously planned. . The goal would be to pilot the EM-1 mission on these commercial vehicles by June 2020, he said, while continuing to develop the SLS for EM-2 and later missions.

Senators at the hearing reacted very little to the plan, aside from a comment by the chair of the committee, Senator Roger Wicker (R-Mademoiselle) that he "would like us to stay on schedule". Later in the day, the Senate's most influential counsel for the SLS weighed against a plan to divert the EM-1 from this rocket.

"While I agree that the delay in the launch schedule of SLS is unacceptable, I am firmly convinced that SLS should launch the Orion," said Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) In a statement to SpaceNews .

Shelby is chairman of the Senate Credits Committee and is home to the Marshall Space Flight Center, NASA's main SLS development center. In a speech delivered on March 6 at a luncheon of the Space Transportation Association, he stated that he "had a non-fleeting interest in what NASA does" and "a little bit of". parish interest too ".

The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, an industrial group consisting of particular companies involved in the development of SLS and Orion, also defended the use of the SLS for Orion missions. "No other launch vehicle than the SLS can allow the launch of a fully equipped Orion, including the [service module], to the moon, "he said in a statement of 14 March. "As a result, the Administrator noted that this approach would require at least two launches of heavy transport vehicles."

The group added that it "is also clear that this approach would require additional funding as it is both to undertake this mission and to further develop the SLS system". Bridenstine, in her testimony to the Senate, gave no estimate of the cost of this alternative approach to EM-1 but stated that she "might require congressional assistance."

The announcement, which surprised many industry players, has surpassed other debates on NASA's exploration projects and SLS funding. At the same time as the Senate was holding its hearing, the House Scientific Committee was holding its own hearing on the future of US space exploration, which was attended by several former government officials.

"Putting SLS and Orion on the right track for exploration missions 1 and 2 is essential for the long-term sustainability of these programs, because these are the systems that will push us further into the cosmos," said Representative Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), Eminent member of the committee, in his opening remarks.

Subsequently, Lucas asked one of the witnesses, former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, to develop more powerful versions of the SLS and project in the administration's budget proposal. for the fiscal year 2020, released March 11, to defer its higher stage of exploration, more powerful. Whitson said that it would be best if NASA's launch vehicle experts answer these questions.

Lucas argued that without bigger boosters, NASA would need a "piecemeal" exploration approach, with more launches of smaller vehicles, which, according to Whitson, had certain risks. "There are a lot of risks with several missions," said Whitson.

The future of the SLS was also discussed later on March 13 at the Apollo 50 + 50 symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An industry panel was asked that it was "always useful" to develop the SLS because of its timing, its cost issues and the availability of commercial alternatives. The moderator noted that audience members had asked the panel a number of questions about the SLS, although he was not sure they were informed by the news of Bridenstine's testimony earlier in the day.

Panellists have largely defended the SLS. "For me, it's not clear that there is a commercial alternative" to SLS, said Keoki Jackson, Lockheed Martin's chief technology officer.

Larry James, Deputy Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, discussed the potential use of SLS for other missions. "This opens up the outer planets to exploration," he said. "From a scientific point of view, you open a new field of rapid exploration of outer planets with the SLS."

James did not note that the administration's proposed budget for 2020 proposed to transfer the Europa Clipper mission, a mission of this type to the outer planets that planned to use the SLS, in a commercial launcher, evoking an economy more than $ 700 million.

An exception came from Bob Smith, managing director of Blue Origin, a company that aims to develop heavy launchers. "You build a custom government system if you have enough tailor-made government missions," he said. "If the demand for SLS is sufficient, then you should start building SLS. If not, you should do what you do with something else: you rely on commercial alternatives available. "

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