NASA's super-sized space launch system could be harmed


It's not a secret NASA's Space Launch System is struggling to keep up with its schedule. This multi-billion dollar launcher should transport human beings and goods in deep space. The problem is that the agency is committed to sending an American plane to the moon next year. NASA's new moon taxi, called Orion, is almost ready to go. But his race – the big and swollen SLS – is still years of completion.

On Wednesday morning, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine appeared before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to discuss US leadership in outer space. During his testimony, he revealed an unexpected turn. For the first time, Bridenstine said that the agency would consider the use of commercial rockets to take off its crew capsule. For NASA, traveling in deep space would no longer be synonymous with SLS.

"We now understand better the difficulty of this project," he explained. Prior to the withdrawal of NASA's space shuttle program, the agency had begun to expose its vision of its next-generation rocket. In 2011, the development of SLS began. hopes to become the largest rocket in the world. But, year after year, the agency has been criticized for its shortcomings and has exceeded its budget targets. She has been criticized for her shortcomings. Rather, it is an agency-wide job program rather than a real space trip until 2017, when the rocket received a new goal: to deliver astronauts to the moon.

Its inaugural launch was originally scheduled for 2018, but that date has quickly slipped to 2019 and then to 2020, and officials are now not even sure this schedule is achievable. But Bridenstine told Congress that he wanted NASA to meet its deadlines. "I want to be really clear," he said. "I think that as an agency, we must respect our commitment. If we tell you and others that we are going to launch around the moon in June 2020, I think we should get into the moon in June 2020. "

To meet these deadlines, the administrator acknowledged that all options, including commercial rockets, should be considered. Bridenstine's comments were unexpected; For almost 10 years, NASA has been supporting an exclusively SLS approach to sending its astronauts into deep space. (Originally, the agency had limited its trading partners to not send crew beyond the low Earth orbit). But with an extremely tight schedule and multiple technical delays, it is now clear that SLS will almost certainly not be ready to fly in 2020.

Over the years, Orion's destination has changed from Mars to the Moon and even to the surface of an asteroid. But one thing was certain: at Orion's first foray beyond Earth, an unmanned capsule would perform a six-day moon circuit; Bridenstine says this mission could be launched at the top of a commercial rocket. Called Exploration Mission 1 (or EM-1), it was also the inaugural journey of SLS.

The problem is that Orion is too heavy for a utility vehicle currently in use to drop it into lunar orbit. Bridenstine acknowledged this in his testimony: "The problem is that we do not have a rocket at the moment that could launch Orion and the European service module around the moon." (Built by the European Space Agency, the service module will power Orion during the flight).

"That's what the SLS really is," he added.

Instead, Bridenstine suggested that the mission be done in stages. First, a rocket would send Orion and the European service module into orbit around the Earth; a second rocket would launch an upper tier separately. This rocket on the upper floor should meet the duo in orbit and propel it on the moon. But this too is easier said than done, because the docking technology required to remove it does not exist yet.

"By June of 2020, we will have to make it a reality," Bridenstine said at the time.

But Bridenstine did not mention the rockets that would perform such a mission. Currently, only two vehicles can carry large amounts of cargo in space: SpaceX's Falcon Heavy and United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy.

The Falcon Heavy, which debuted last year, has so far only launched a Tesla, while the Delta IV Heavy has carried a plethora of payloads, including a smaller version of the spacecraft. Orion Space in 2014. (The Heavy-Lift The rocket launched the capsule during a four-hour trip around the Earth aboard an experimental flight called Exploration Flight Test-1).

The move to a commercial rocket for EM-1 would be a blow to the SLS program, which has been criticized for its huge budget – estimated at $ 14 billion – and its development at snail speed. But with the beginnings of the Falcon Heavy, its raison d'être has become less and less clear. (A Heavy Falcon can deliver nearly 141,000 pounds in a low Earth orbit, while a Delta IV can carry 62,540 pounds and a theoretical SLS, at 209,000 pounds).

The big delivery: Yes NASA can send Orion into the space at the back of private rockets. It is also likely that future crewed missions to SLS could do so. (Bridenstine told Congress that the agency would review the commercial opportunity as soon as possible). In a speech on Monday, the administrator explained that other elements of the future lunar bridge, which is essentially a mini space station orbiting the moon, could also be launched on commercial rockets.

But this is not the only blow to SLS this week. On Monday, the president released his budget request for 2020. In this document, Trump proposed cuts that would reduce NASA's overall budget by 2 percent to $ 21 billion. The reductions include stopping the development of a second, more powerful version of SLS; a request that strips the rocket of its greatest asset: lifting capacity.

However, Bridenstine emphasized that the SLS was still needed for the future of the Orion program and NASA's ambitions in the space field. "The SLS, the largest rocket ever built in American history, is an essential part of what the United States must build, "he told a crowd of NASA employees at the Kennedy Space Center on Monday. "We need the SLS and the Orion crew capsule."

The administration also said that the next NASA mission on Jupiter's Moon, Europa, scheduled for 2023, should be launched on a commercial rocket – a reversal of the 2015 congressional mandate which stipulated that it had to fly on SLS . The budget proposal states that the use of a commercial rocket would allow NASA to save over $ 700 million, which would allow the agency to fund several new activities. (The Obama administration made the same proposal, but Congress rejected it.)

With these proposals depriving SLS of much of its capabilities, there is only one mission remaining: launching Orion directly into the lunar orbit. But if NASA can launch the necessary Gateway components, including Orion, on commercial rockets, the case of SLS becomes more and more worn out.

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