First SLS Flight Slips to Late 2018

Space Launch System in flight. (Credit: NASA)
Space Launch System in flight. (Credit: NASA)

UPDATE: NASA officials just completed a teleconference in which they said November 2018 is a No Later Than date. They are hoping to do much better; there’s still a chance of launching in December 2017 or sometime soon afterward.

NASA just announced an 11-month delay in the first Space Launch System flight from December 2017 to November 2018 in the fourth paragraph of a press release.

This decision comes after a thorough review known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), which provides a development cost baseline for the 70-metric ton version of the SLS of $7.021 billion from February 2014 through the first launch and a launch readiness schedule based on an initial SLS flight no later than November 2018.

The full press release is below.

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA officials Wednesday announced they have completed a rigorous review of the Space Launch System (SLS) — the heavy-lift, exploration class rocket under development to take humans beyond Earth orbit and to Mars — and approved the program’s progression from formulation to development, something no other exploration class vehicle has achieved since the agency built the space shuttle.

“We are on a journey of scientific and human exploration that leads to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “And we’re firmly committed to building the launch vehicle and other supporting systems that will take us on that journey.”

Space Launch System on pad. (Credit: NASA)
Space Launch System on pad. (Credit: NASA)

For its first flight test, SLS will be configured for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit. In its most powerful configuration, SLS will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), which will enable missions even farther into our solar system, including such destinations as an asteroid and Mars.

This decision comes after a thorough review known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), which provides a development cost baseline for the 70-metric ton version of the SLS of $7.021 billion from February 2014 through the first launch and a launch readiness schedule based on an initial SLS flight no later than November 2018.

Conservative cost and schedule commitments outlined in the KDP-C align the SLS program with program management best practices that account for potential technical risks and budgetary uncertainty beyond the program’s control.

“Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program, and we owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right,” said Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who oversaw the review process. “After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment.”

“The Space Launch System Program has done exemplary work during the past three years to get us to this point,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We will keep the teams working toward a more ambitious readiness date, but will be ready no later than November 2018.”

The SLS, Orion, and Ground Systems Development and Operations programs each conduct a design review prior to each program’s respective KDP-C, and each program will establish cost and schedule commitments that account for its individual technical requirements.

“We are keeping each part of the program — the rocket, ground systems, and Orion — moving at its best possible speed toward the first integrated test launch,” said Bill Hill, director Exploration Systems Development at NASA. “We are on a solid path toward an integrated mission and making progress in all three programs every day.”

“Engineers have made significant technical progress on the rocket and have produced hardware for all elements of the SLS program,” said SLS program manager Todd May. “The team members deserve an enormous amount of credit for their dedication to building this national asset.”

The program delivered in April the first piece of flight hardware for Orion’s maiden flight, Exploration Flight Test-1 targeted for December. This stage adapter is of the same design that will be used on SLS’s first flight, Exploration Mission-1.

Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans has all major tools installed and is producing hardware, including the first pieces of flight hardware for SLS. Sixteen RS-25 engines, enough for four flights, currently are in inventory at Stennis Space Center, in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where an engine is already installed and ready for testing this fall. NASA contractor ATK has conducted successful test firings of the five-segment solid rocket boosters and is preparing for the first qualification motor test.

SLS will be the world’s most capable rocket. In addition to opening new frontiers for explorers traveling aboard the Orion capsule, the SLS may also offer benefits for science missions that require its use and can’t be flown on commercial rockets.

The next phase of development for SLS is the Critical Design Review, a programmatic gate that reaffirms the agency’s confidence in the program planning and technical risk posture.

For more information about SLS, visit:

  • mzungu

    What’s the hurry? It’s not like I know where we are going…. 😀

  • Chad Overton

    Boy that sure is a pretty picture!

  • newpapyrus

    The SLS won’t be fully operational until the expendable RS-25E engines are ready and the upper stage is developed. So the real SLS probably won’t be ready until 2021.

    The Obama administrations beyond LEO strategy, however, is politically and economically unsustainable mostly because of the multi-year gaps between SLS launches. Fortunately, that administration will finally be out of office after 2016.


  • Jeff Smith

    They could just rename it again and restart the clock. It worked for Ares V, it could work for SLS!

  • Chad Overton

    Listen Im not defending the Obama admin but how the heck is the SLS Obama policy? You know darn well congress proscribed the SLS and how it would be built! Or are you saying the admin hasen’t supported the program enough? My point is just that the success or failure of SLS and the BEO program has very little to do with Obama. Say what you will about him, good or bad he (and really his science advisor) has nothing to do with SLS other than going along with it as a compromise with congress.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Well NASA has learn’t nothing over the last few program debacles and so nothing has changed.

  • Wayne Martin

    As long as SLS keeps Crew and Cargo together along with a launch rate of less than once per year then its a death trap waiting to happen!

  • Stuart

    SLS is the vehicle by which the current administration avoids manned deep space and leaves the big stuff to the next administration. I have no doubt all will change again and still no missions to Mars let alone the Moon will take place. Sorry for the negative outlook.

  • Kapitalist

    I hope SLS will fly. I think it is worth its high price. Sure it could’ve been done in a better way (but not by government!) What worries me is the seemingly realistic prognosis that it will never fly in a useful way.

    However, I would think that once it exists, it will become politically possible to fund space missions which make use of it. Without having any capable launch vehicle, such proposals are too distant for politicians to care about. With SLS+Orion tested one could go to Mars within eight years and suddenly the administration is interested. NASA’s 0.5% of the federal budget is not a relevant limit in that context.

  • Dave Salt

    “once it exists, it will become politically possible to fund space missions which make use of it”… yes, just like they did for the Saturn V

  • Chief Galen Tyrol

    I’ve always wondered what the deal with the white paint job is. Is it an attempt to appeal to Apollo big rocket nostalgia? An attempt to dupe people into thinking SLS is different than Ares V? Or are the SLS tanks actually uninsulated?

  • Kapitalist

    Saturn V was abandoned because of hopes for a new reusable space launch system with smaller payload capacity. Saturn V should’ve been kept. Now it is recreated. That’s a good thing.

  • Dave Salt

    Saturn V was effectively cancelled in 1966, which was well before Shuttle was conceived; primarily as a way to maintain the industrial base built up for Apollo.

    People envisaged many ways of using it in conjunction with Shuttle (e.g. launching 33ft diameter space station modules) but real-world politics and financial constraints undermined them… just as they’ll undermine any mission based upon SLS.

  • Dave Salt

    Oops, that should have been 1968…

  • Kapitalist

    Okey, sure, Shuttle and SLS are inefficient (relative to hypothetical alternatives) because they are governmental programs. Apollo was much better because it was created together with the sudden expansion of the new space agency. The first thing a government bureaucracy does is (potentially) much better than what any already existing bureaucracy can do. The general expansion of government agencies of the Western world in the 1960s and 70s invested in tangible stuff which worked well to begin with. Because they just copied and re-prioritized what the private sector was already doing.

    But we shouldn’t complain about the gov building a big rocket, if we think that space flight is worth more than its general share of efforts in society today. And I think that politicians are as short-sighted as their mandates. When there exists a ready option to use SLS for something, it will be so much easier for them to press that button. And it is made for human space flight to the Moon and/or Mars! I think that the SLS people have learned the lesson and found out that this is the politically possible way forward. Start with the capability, then the purposes for it will follow.

    Politics is not mission driven, I wish it were, but it is not. And NASA is supporting Falcon Heavy too, it is not either or.

  • Hug Doug

    No, white is the best color for thermal control. the white paint reflects more sunlight and reduces the amount of energy the rocket absorbs, reducing boiloff of the liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuels.

    the ET on the Shuttle was originally painted white, the paint was not used after a few flights because the insulation (a rusty orange-brown in color) was found to be sufficient on its own. that could very well happen to the SLS also.

  • Dave Salt

    I sympathise with your vision but just don’t see it working in the real-world. You’re essentially asking politicians to spend at least the equivalent of what’s been spent on SLS (>>$7billion) simply to justify the original ‘investment’.

    Moreover, your argument would only make sense if SLS was the only way to access space… which it clearly isn’t.

  • Chief Galen Tyrol

    I should rephrase my question. Why does Ares V have unpainted orange insulation while SLS has white tanks? I suspected it was a marketing ploy make SLS look different than Ares V.

  • Paul451

    I’m more interested in their justification for the black squares, especially the full Saturn V chequered pattern on SLS-130.

  • Paul451

    2018: Congressional members proudly announced today the beginnings of NASA’s new project to carry mankind beyond Earth: The Big Rocket.

    The Big Rocket program is the culmination of everything Congress has been working towards for twenty years,” said newly reappointed NASA Director Mike Griffin. “And NASA. Congress and NASA.”

    Critics question NASA’s ability to meet the bold new challenge, noting that the bill requires that NASA produce within 20 or 30 or so years, “a really big rocket which really really looks like that one from Apollo”, but also carries a requirement that it uses SRBs. “How really like Saturn V can it really look if it has SRBs hanging off it?” asked one critic, “Is it really just about the paint job?” Other critics noted that the language of the bill actually forbids NASA from using The Big Rocket to go into space.

  • Chief Galen Tyrol

    On Saturn V, they were tracking targets – used with high speed cameras to determine roll rate. Now they’re just for show; the same way racing stripes on a teenager’s car make it go faster.

  • windbourne

    Actually, o wants the SLS dead. He was always opposed to it.

  • windbourne

    Yeah, I felt the same way until recently when somebody showed the numbers for SLS. It was 1.4B just for the first stage core. As he pointed out, it will be around 3.5B just for the rocket, not even launched. So a simple launching will be a great deal more.

    As such, it is impossible to fly this economically. Far better to do another COTS for 2 SHLV of say 150-200 tonnes. Help 2 groups with say 3.5 billion each (2 launches) to design and build the above system. They must be able to launch for less than .5B. Afterwards, open up contracts for 2 systems to have 2 launches / year for 3 years. IOW, they will get 6 launches from this. In addition for the bid that comes in lowest ( and safest ) will get 3 launches at that price. So one company will get 9 total launches, another gets 6.

    The above will enable real competition to take place.

  • Paul451

    And with the rest of the money saved from cancelling SLS/Orion, fund a few COTS-style program to develop payloads for these heavy-lifters. Power/propulsion/habitat modules. Landers and surface habs. Reusable BEO supply ships. Until you have all the pieces of the puzzle. Then you pick a destination, order a set off-the-shelf and go. Different President, different destination? Doesn’t matter, order a set of parts off-the-shelf and go.

    And honest to God manned space program.

  • therealdmt

    The problem with this proposal is that it makes sense in terms of finding a cost efficient way to enable manned exploration of the solar system (and specifically, the moon [and cislunar space], NEAs, Mars and its environs[including Phobos and Dienos], as well as possibly main belt asteroids and Venus).

    However, as we have all come to realise, Congress, while not actively against exploration, isn’t for it enough to actually enable it. What they are really for is to return money to the districts of powerful members and critical votes, and to the contractors who benefit and in turn support the congress people who award them money.

  • windbourne

    100%, totally agree.

  • windbourne

    Again, I agree. CONgress is a serious determent to NASA and our future. I suspect that if AQ/ISIS were to attack CONgress and blew them up at least 80% of Americans would thank them, rather than be upset (and the other 20% would blame O instead of AQ/ISIS for masterminding it).

    That is why I have been a fan of getting spaceX’s FH and dragon rider going. At that point, it makes SLS quite a bit harder to finish, though at this point, it is supposedly fleshed out. That will make killing SLS harder. So many directions to go.

    Regardless, about 1 year from now, I think that Space will be a VERY interesting issue on American’s mind. Now, just to get CONgress to do the right thing.

  • John Hanson

    It’s a long story, but I believe the answer comes down to an intern who decided that the Saturn V style checkerboard looked better than the Ares V / STS foam tank. It went into an official press release and everybody copied the look after that.

    AFAIK NASA has no plans to actually paint the tank due to weight reasons, the same reason the Shuttle ET was unpainted after the first few flights.

  • windbourne

    In what way is going to an asteroid economically unsustainable?
    Where the problem comes in, is using the SLS to do it.

  • se jones

    >>Actually, o wants the SLS dead

    Ok, but seriously, the ARM is OB’s (really Holdren’s) baby, so just exactly how was NASA supposed to fly the crewed part of ARM without SLS or something like it?

    This and other forums are endlessly carping on those stoopid congressmen with their pork SLS, but OB can’t do his pet ARM project without heavy lift – so where does this congress pork vs. OB policy conflict come from in people’s minds?

    If ARM needs SLS, why does congress get all the criticism for SLS? Seems to me, it’s a marriage made in heaven. So to speak.

    (I know I know…in the real universe ARM & SLS are both preposterous, so spare me)

  • Robert Gishubl

    The way to get into space is commercial crew and commercial cargo using similar methodology to ISS COTS. The reason Obama was opposed to constellation and by extension SLS was its high cost. There are cheaper better ways to get into orbit and if all the money goes into designing a rocket haw do you pay for the payload?
    What Obama wanted was to develop a broad range of enabling technologies such as fuel depots, deep space habitats, new deep space propulsion etc that would allow future missions. If you look at all the SLS/Orion based deep space missions they use modular spacecraft that require multiple SLS launches, so there is no difference to using Falcon Heavy of Delta to launch a couple more times with slightly smaller modules. Without the high cost of SLS and Orion development these enabling technologies could be flying now, at least as demonstration versions in LEO.
    SLS/Orion is simply pork to keep established ex shuttle contractors going to provide campaign contributions to key people. For space flight and NASA SLS and Orion are a leach sucking needed funds from useful programs like commercial crew and deep space enabling technologies.

  • su27k

    ARM is Obama’s Lemonade given the Lemon that is SLS/Orion.

    Obama’s fault is abandoning the Moon as destination, he should swallow his pride and keep returning to the Moon as space policy, but use COTS approach instead of a big unaffordable government program.

  • delphinus100

    “Fortunately, that administration will finally be out of office after 2016.”

    And you are certain that the next administration will be more SLS-friendly, because…?

  • delphinus100

    “However, as we have all come to I realise, Congress, while not actively
    against exploration, isn’t for it enough to actually enable it”

    Public support isn’t much different. ‘A mile wide, but an inch deep,’ as some have said.

  • delphinus100

    And the fact that we didn’t even use up the Saturns we had, shows the problem with that assertion.

    Besides, we already knew what we were going to do with the Saturn V, and were willing to spend the money to develop other necessary hardware (primarily the Lunar Module) in parallel. Once it ‘exists,’ what happens to SLS production lines and launch crew proficiency, while it waits X number of years for development of some project that might use that kind of single-launch capacity?

  • Stuart

    Only trouble is…. paint has weight. As margins get tighter and tighter I wouldn’t be surprised to see a change.

  • windbourne

    Actually, the BEST thing is for NASA to NOT go to the moon. We did this once. Instead, NASA is working with private space and they will go to the moon. NASA will no doubt occupy at least 1/2 of the seats on the first mission, if not the first 5 years on the moon.

    And in the meantime, NASA can continue to work on ARM.

    So, this is not about O swallowing pride because it makes total sense that ARM continue forward. What does not make sense is the SLS part of it. Instead, once SLS is dead, then NASA can continue with COTS like programs for tugs and various things like that.

  • windbourne

    ARM does NOT need SLS. In fact, it is SLS that makes ARM so expensive. For the price of the SLS which is apparently more than 3B (not even a launch, which will increase it a great deal), FH can launch more than 20x, which means that they can put more than 1000 tonnes into orbit compared to the 70 tonnes of the SLS.

    All in all, Bolden does NOT want the SLS, and is waiting for the right time to kill it. He DOES want ARM to advance our ability to remain BEO, as well as helping with mining and asteroid deflection.

    Finally, if NASA is making heavy use of FH, and hopefully another heavy lifter from ULA that they develop on their own, it will drop the price of going BEO for all.

  • Wayne Martin

    I don’t typically jump into the political minutia but when I watched
    / listened to the Curiosity landing on Mars… which by the way was one of the most unbelievably hard and technologically challenging things I have ever witnessed as well as an Extremely awesome to listen in on… but after that successfully mind blowing NASA achievement I was proudly watching the press conference afterwards and to hear Obama putting his name all over something he had absolutely nothing to do with from inception to execution almost made me PUKE!!!

    In my mind Obama basically kicked the can down the road until he was out of office… I can’t get by what he said in 2007 while running for election… in that he was going to put NASA on hold for education…

    He’s an opportunist like most politicians on either side of the fence and I personally think he accidentally did the right thing by supporting commercial space… but at least that’s something he can hang his hat on even if his intentions were to Gut NASA like a Fish!

  • su27k

    I agree with the part regarding private space and SLS, but from a space policy point of view, it’s important to have a near term destination as goal, and the Moon is the best candidate. Returning to the Moon has good support in the public, the congress and the international community, this can be used to partially offset the negative reaction towards using private/commercial companies in NASA missions. The Moon and ARM doesn’t conflict with each other, the original ARM concept is not supposed to be a destination, it can be done in the sideline while NASA uses the Moon as focus to gather support.

  • windbourne

    Oh, I have no doubt that we will be on the moon by 2022, assuming that the house GOP will quite trying to kill private space. Musk, Bigelow, Amazon’s guy, etc all want the moon as well as mars.
    Far better to have NASA focus on what private space will/can not do, while helping them on the side.