by Douglas Messier
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.
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.