by Douglas Messier
If you’ve been puzzling over exactly why NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine suddenly floated the idea of flying the first Orion space capsule to the moon next year without the Space Launch System (SLS), The Washington Post has a couple of answers today:
- SLS is much further behind schedule than anyone knew; and,
- 2020 is a presidential election year.
Christian Davenport has the details of a recent briefing prime contractor Boeing gave to Bridenstine and other NASA officials about why the launch would be delayed from June 2020.
One estimate had the rocket launch as late as November 2021, and NASA’s leaders were furious, according to people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about sensitive negotiations. President Trump and Vice President Pence wanted NASA to pull off something big and bold with human spaceflight before the 2020 election: sending a crewless capsule around the moon in a precursor to an eventual return of American astronauts to the lunar surface.
But the latest delays would push the flight well past the election.
“We’re not doing this,” a dismayed NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told the Boeing team. “We’re going to create an alternative solution. All options are on the table.”
John Shannon, Boeing’s SLS program manager, said the company acknowledges widespread problems but recently has shown progress.
“We’re late and I completely own that, but we are dialed in now and the team is producing extremely well,” Shannon said. “I have high confidence that we’re going to come out with an amazing capability by the end of the year, and I can’t wait to get to that point.”
NASA is evaluating whether an uncrewed Orion could be launched on a flight test aboard a commercial rocket next year. Once it was in orbit, the spacecraft would link up with a booster stage launched on a different rocket that would send it around the moon.
The most powerful boosters in the U.S. launcher fleet are SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which flew its inaugural flight last year, and United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy, which launched an Orion capsule on a test flight in December 2014.
Bridenstine said the plan would allow NASA to test the Orion spacecraft in deep space while saving the SLS booster to launch the first element of a human-tended Lunar Gateway that would be placed in orbit around the moon.
Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to chair a meeting of the National Space Council on Tuesday at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The center is managing the SLS program.
There are rumors on Twitter that Pence could announce plans to accelerate a return of astronauts to the moon ahead of the currently 2028 planning date. Given the pace of the SLS program, that would likely mean greater use of commercial boosters.
Pence’s former chief of staff, Nick Ayres, tweeted the following about Davenport’s story this morning:
Cannot overstate the importance of this story. Thrilled @POTUS and @VP continue to demand performance and raise the bar for US Space interests. Even better that @JimBridenstine said “all options are on the table” RE SLS
The administration’s move toward commercial boosters has reportedly infuriated Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). Shelby has fiercely protected the SLS and Orion programs despite years of delays and cost overruns.
There is also broad bi-partisan support in Congress for both programs, which employ large numbers of people in key electoral states such as Florida and Texas.
Citing cost overruns and schedule delays, the Obama Administration canceled Orion and a pair of Ares boosters that would have launched the spacecraft into Earth orbit and on deep-space missions. Congress saved Orion and the Ares heavy-lift booster evolved into SLS.
The Trump Administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget request forecasts six to seven flights of the SLS and Orion combination. However, it also projects that the Lunar Gateway would be completed and resupplied using commercial boosters.
Under the budget, funding would be reduced for SLS, Orion and the Exploration Ground Systems that are required to support launches at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The funds would be reallocated toward the Lunar Gateway and technologies needed to return astronauts to the moon’s surface.
The request would defer funding on upgrading the booster’s from lifting 85 metric tons to low Earth orbit to 105 metric tons. Work on the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), which is required for the upgrade, and a second mobile launch platform would be deferred.
The Europa Clipper orbiter to Jupiter’s ice-crusted moon be launched on a commercial rocket. Under current law, both the Europa orbiter and a subsequent lander must be launched aboard SLS boosters.