Bridenstine Suggests Dumping SLS for First Orion Flight Around the Moon

Jim Bridenstine (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Well, that was unexpected.

In testimony before the Senate Science Committee this morning, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said NASA is considering launching the first Orion spacecraft around the moon next year without using the Space Launch System (SLS).

Instead, NASA would conduct a pair of launches with an uncrewed Orion and an upper stage flying on commercial rockets. Once they are docked in orbit, the vehicles would conduct a flight around the moon before Orion returned to Earth.

Bridenstine did not mention which boosters would be used. The two most powerful ones in the U.S. launch vehicle arsenal are SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which flew its inaugural flight last year, and United Launch Alliance’s veteran Delta IV, which has flown 37 times.

NASA launched an Orion capsule on a test flight in Earth orbit aboard a Delta IV Heavy in December 2014. The next Orion flight will have a European Service Module attached, meaning the vehicle will probably be too heavy for a Delta IV Heavy.

Bridenstine’s bold proposal is designed to ensure a launch in 2020 for NASA’s deep space exploration effort, whose schedule has been slipping for years. The space agency has said it is reevaluating whether it can launch SLS and Orion in the first half of 2020.

SLS liquid hydrogen tank (Credit: NASA/Tyler Martin)

Bridenstine said NASA could still use SLS to launch the first crewed Orion mission. That option, however, would entail safety, programmatic and political risks.

Early in the Trump Administration, NASA studied whether to accelerate the programs by launching a crew on the first flight of SLS. It decided against that option, which would entail safety risks.

The programmatic risk is if the dual launch mission works and saves the space agency a substantial amount of money, the rationale for continuing with SLS is significantly under cut. There would be a strong incentive to cancel the program and put the money spent on it to accelerate NASA’s plans to send astronauts back to the moon.

Bridenstine’s plan presents opportunities and risks for the Trump Administration. Launching next year would give President Donald Trump a space spectacular to run on. It could also accelerate the lunar program.

For Fiscal Year 2019, NASA is spending $2.15 billion on SLS, $1.35 billion on Orion, and $592.8 million on Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) to support launches for a total of nearly $4.1 billion.

The$2.15 billion per year spent on SLS pays for a lot of jobs in key electoral states such as Florida, Texas and Alabama. Any effort to reduce the program will likely face fierce Congressional opposition unless NASA can show that the money saved would be used to employ workers on other programs in those states.

The Administration fired the first shots across the bow of the SLS, Orion, and EGS program on Monday in its FY 2020 request. The proposed budget would:

  • reduce spending on the three programs by $650.6 million;
  • defer SLS upgrades that would raise the rocket’s payload to low Earth orbit (LEO) from 70 to 105 metric tons; and,
  • launch the Europa Clipper orbiter on a commercial rocket instead of SLS, a move the Administration believes would save more than $700 million.

The Trump Administration has also said NASA does not need SLS for assembling the Lunar Gateway, a human-tended facility which would be placed in orbit around the moon in the early 2020’s.

A successful Orion flight next year using commercial boosters would give the Administration options. It could keep funding SLS through the presidential election, and then it could either scale the program back or cancel it once Trump was safely reelected.

It’s unclear whether this plan will fly with Congress. Thus far, legislators have rejected Trump’s attempt to cut the space agency budget, instead boosting spending on the space program. The Administration’s FY 2020 request for NASA is $500 million below the $21.5 billion budget Congress approved just last month.

The Obama Administration’s attempt to cancel the Orion and Ares booster programs in 2010 was unsuccessful. Congress saved Orion and the Ares was reborn as SLS, albeit without the smaller Ares booster designed to launch Orion on missions into Earth orbit.

  • The Other Dr. Phil
  • Jeff Smith

    ‘All up’ testing got Apollo back on track. I wonder if this will be remembered as something similar in decades to come.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Use three Falcon’s. An uncrewed Orion on a heavy, a Crew Dragon for the transfer, and a third Falcon for the kick stage. Launch the Orion and kick stage first, check them out in orbit, then send up the crew. Or better yet, just send the Orion out uncrewed on a all up test with no crew.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Better yet. Just junk the Orion and use the Dragon2.

  • ThomasLMatula

    “Thus far, legislators have rejected Trump’s attempt to cut the space
    agency budget, instead boosting spending on the space program.”

    Yep, he keeps trying to take the Pork out, but the Alabama Pork Machine keeps putting it back in the budget.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    In principle I’d go for that. I wonder if Dragon2’s systems are rated for operations inside and then beyond the VanAllen belts?

  • se jones

    The next Orion flight will have a European Service Module attached, meaning the vehicle will probably be too heavy for a Delta IV Heavy.

    Probably not to LEO. The DIV-H had to heave Orion Flight Test 1 into a higher energy elliptical orbit.

    The hard part will be finding & configuring a suitable upper stage in such short order.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I would be surprise if they weren’t since that was its original purpose.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I also wonder if there has been a change in heat shield between Dragon 1 and Dragon 2? I remember the heat shield for Dragon 1 is rated for Lunar return, and has had it erosion measured to confirm that in past orbital flights. However, Dragon 2 came back looking extra toasty over a Dragon 1, I wonder if there might have been a change that would require a test of a Dragon 2 in much the same way Orion was tested.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Wasn’t one of the needed modifications for Red Dragon rating the flight systems for interplanetary flight?

  • ThomasLMatula

    Rating yes, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t built to that standard. Its just means they would have to show NASA they are capable of interplanetary flight. I suspect they same is true for the heat shield.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The Delta IV is capable of placing 28,000 kg into LEO, the Orion and Service module only weight 25,500 kg. Yes, I wonder how quickly Elon Musk could build one based on the Falcon 9 second stage.

    Of course the real problem, besides getting Congress to allocate the money for a mission that will essentially kill off the SLS, will be getting NASA to move at the speed needed. Someone will have to hold their feet to the fire.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Well, if that’s the case we need test flights. Orion already had it’s radiation and heat soak.

  • se jones

    Upper stage need:
    The stack is unmanned, so in theory you could -perhaps- stack a 50-kW SEP Power and Propulsion Element on a Centaur. Not likely to be ready that fast, but that would kill two demonstration birds with one stone. Calculations are in order.

    Someone will have to hold their feet to the fire.

    Recalling that sh*t runs downhill: Trump > Pence > Bridenstine.
    Which is fine with me, if the administration wants some sort of crewed s/c “spectacular” by 2020, so be it, anything to provide a sense of urgency for a change.

  • Eric Thiel

    Europa Clipper, gateway, and now Orion all want to be launched on a commercial rocket. SLS won’t survive for much longer, it’s hard to argue for it when SpaceX now has the most powerful rocket.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Which is exactly what the EM-1 is, a test flight.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Its not going to have a crew aboard, that would be EM-2.

  • ThomasLMatula

    And meanwhile, down Texas way, the beast is coming to life….

    SpaceX begins static Starhopper tests as Raptor engine arrives on schedule

    By Eric Ralph
    March 12, 2019

    “While reasonably routine for any rocket test program, the first tanking test of Starhopper effectively marks the first time that SpaceX has begun tests with a more or less fully integrated Starship (previously BFS).”

  • Bob Redman

    This is ridiculous. I’ve been all for the SLS and Orion, but this made me stop in my tracks. Suddenly the head of NASA says, “Forget about SLS. We’ll use two other rockets and they will magically dock in orbit around the Earth, unmanned mind you, and then speed off to a three week mission around the moon.” How stupid.

    We can’t wait for the SLS rocket to be completed first? No, no. We’ll try this one-of-a-kind mission and hope for the best. Then we’ll put live astronauts on the first launch of a never-been-tested rocket and it’ll be just swell! I just lost all hope for this disaster in the making. Seriously. I have been an ardent fan of this project since its inception but this has brought me to a standstill. SpaceX is the only contender left standing.

  • therealdmt

    Musk previously mentioned that for Beyond LEO operations, an upgrade to Dragon’s communications (and telemetry?) systems would be needed in order for it to be able to interface with the Deep Space Network.

    Of course, that’s hardly a show stopper, but I’m sure various upgrades, including to life support, would be needed). However, all that is simply a matter of rolling up the sleeves and getting on with it. The basic idea is that the capsule was designed from the beginning to handle such flights. The basic design elements are there

  • Saturn1300

    A successful Orion flight next year using commercial boosters would give
    the Administration options. It could keep funding SLS through the
    presidential election, and then it could either scale the program back
    or cancel it once Trump was safely reelected.
    That plan may fail. They may have Trump. He gave false information on a loan application to a bank. Trump should make a deal. He will not run for reelection. He will retire and play golf every day like a lot of people his age does. If they leave him alone. No more worries for him. Someone should tell him he does not have to work until he dies. I don’t work. It takes some getting use to, but it works. My other interests besides work are enjoyable and fulfilling. I am happy and so Mr. Trump could be also. He does not have to do what everyone he thinks expects of him. He has done his duty and service. Prop your feet up Mr. Trump and enjoy.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The second stage for the EM-2 is already different than the one used for the EM-1 so it already is a new rocket.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    The beauty of mass produced inexpensive experimental vehicles flying on inexpensive mass produced less experimental boosters is you can test fly a lot which has the effect of making your test article much less experimental, safer, and less expensive in the long run. With low payloads and no crew it seems an end of life Falcon 9 in expend mode could loft a Dragon 2 above the VanAllen belts and into a high energy re-entry trajectory just as Delta Heavy did for Orion. It’s not a monumental test to ask for.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Dragon 2 is not really designed for “long” operations. I am not a supporter of SLS at all..but at least Orion has the avionics and other systems for out of Van Allen belt operation.

    curious about the heat shield…that was “hot”

  • Robert G. Oler

    a major agency of the US government proposed to SpaceX flying a reused Dragon on a circum lunar trajectory

  • Terry Stetler

    Yes. Dragon 1 uses PICA-X 2.0, Dragon 2 uses PICA-X 3.0 which SpaceX says is more capable.

    The marshmallow look is mainly ablated material from the main heat shield, meaning it’s doing it’s job. Similar to the deposited on Falcon 9.

  • Robert G. Oler

    best comment this thread…including mine 🙂 nice snark

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    My impression is that as well. I’m inclined to guess that in the development of Dragon2 NASA would have minimized any long duration spaceflight capabilities in what they asked for and paid for. For all kinds of reasons. But I don’t really know. I fully admit that’s a ‘conspiracy theory’ of my own that I’m ready to be wrong on. When I researched the subject all I could find were other interested 3rd parties asking the same questions. I found a technical risk analysis for Red Dragon done by JPL, but it was totally EDL centric so when going thru their list of technical risks of Red Dragon, I can’t be sure it’s a complete list.

  • Robert G. Oler

    If Musk was not going to pay for propulsive landing, he was not going to pay for any technology that was not needed for the standard up down machine…and thats clearly true with Boeing. I suspect both are modifiable to some lunar effort…but the odds of them doing it off the shelf I bet are less.

    I am not a fan of either SLS or ORion, but at least with Orion the avionics etc of pretty solid fault tolerant stuff outside the VA belts seems to be “in work”…

    I think Trump wants a space spectacular in 2020 to go with his attemped reelection. and its clear SLS is not going to be that

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Dragon2 avionics will be fine through Van Allen belt, derived on the same platform as F9-S2 Block 5 which is demonstrated soak in the belt for many hours. PICA is easily designed to handling Lunar reentry velocities (Better than the AVCOAT on Orion). They would need to probably do a little work around thermal management, some more batteries and comms, that’s about it.

  • Robert G. Oler

    its not through the VA belt that is the problem it is howlong you last outside it…that is not clear

  • Jeff Smith

    I try to SOMETHING to the discussion. 🙂

  • Robert G. Oler

    why he should have done the methane burner second stage

  • Robert G. Oler

    🙂 my compliments Sir

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Dwelling in the VA belt for 6 hours is worse than going through and spending a week in CisLunar space.