NASA considers shifting a key test flight beyond the moon to commercial rockets

Orion and European Service Modlule
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Orion deep-space crew capsule with its European Service Module placed beneath it and an upper stage powering it out of Earth orbit. (NASA Illustration)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told a Senate hearing today that his agency is looking into an option to double up commercial launch vehicles in order to keep a crucial test mission for its Orion spaceship and European-built service module on schedule for mid-2020.

The shift would take NASA’s own heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, or SLS, out of the rotation for the uncrewed test flight around the moon, known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1.

“Certainly there are opportunities to utilize commercial capabilities to launch the Orion crew capsule and the European Service Module around the moon by June of 2020, which was our originally stated objective,” Bridenstine told Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Some of the SLS’ critics (and defenders) might see the move as one more step toward canceling the multibillion-dollar, oft-delayed rocket development project. Bridenstine, however, insisted that the shift for EM-1 was part of a strategy for making sure a follow-up flight that would send astronauts around the moon, known as Exploration Mission 2 or EM-2, wouldn’t face even further delays.

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

Bridenstine said that NASA planners determined last week that the preparations for EM-1 wouldn’t make the previously anticipated June 2020 launch date. In response, he asked mission teams to take a serious look at commercial options.

The SLS is designed to be the most powerful rocket built since the Saturn V rocket that sent astronauts to the moon a half-century ago. Commercial heavy-lift rockets, such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 Heavy, aren’t considered powerful enough to send the Orion crew capsule and its European-built attachment all the way around the moon.

However, Bridenstine said it might be possible to use one rocket to put the two-element spaceship into Earth orbit, and a second rocket to send up a separate upper stage. The two payloads would then dock in Earth orbit, fire the rocket engine on the upper stage, and continue the trip around the moon and back.

That scenario isn’t a slam-dunk. “We do not right now have the ability to dock the Orion crew capsule with anything in orbit,” Bridenstine said, “so between now and June of 2020 we would have to make that a reality.”

Wicker noted that there wasn’t much time between now and mid-2020, but Bridenstine said there might be time enough.

“We have amazing capabilities that exist right now that we can use off the shelf to accomplish this objective,” the NASA administrator said.

Bridenstine said the decision on whether to proceed with the shift could be made in the next couple of weeks.

“Every moment counts, because I want to be clear: NASA has a history of not meeting launch dates, and I’m trying to change that,” he said.

He said it was too early to determine the cost of taking the commercial, two-launch route for EM-1. “There are options to achieve the objective, but it might require some help from Congress,” said Bridenstine, a former congressman from Oklahoma.

Bridenstine said the SLS program would continue, with a “full-up green run test” to be conducted at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi in preparation for the crewed EM-2 launch, which is currently scheduled for 2023.

A green run test involves firing the rocket’s engines on a ground-based test structure rather than actually launching the rocket. Such a scenario could mean that the SLS’ first true liftoff to space would have astronauts aboard, with no preliminary uncrewed launch.

The White House’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2020, released earlier this week, already calls for reducing spending on SLS development by 17.4 percent, to $1.78 billion. The spending plan also opens the door for using commercial rockets to deliver the first elements of the international Gateway space platform to lunar orbit. NASA wants to have the Gateway up and running by 2024.

For years, critics of the SLS have said it could be overtaken by emerging commercial heavy-lift offerings such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Blue Origin’s yet-to-built New Glenn rocket. The possibility of launching components on multiple heavy-lift rockets and assembling them in orbit could open the door wider for arguments that the SLS is unnecessary.

Here’s how Bridenstine’s testimony was greeted today on Twitter: