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article imageNASA's Space Launch System may be replaced by commercial rockets

By Karen Graham     Mar 14, 2019 in Technology
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s surprise announcement March 13 that NASA is considering moving Exploration Mission 1 off of the Space Launch System (SLS) took many in the industry by surprise.
It is no secret that NASA's SLS is way over budget - an estimated $14 billion - and struggling to meet its schedule. And all this money and time has gone into something that is clearly not ready to launch the Orion crew capsule into orbit.
On Wednesday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testified before the Senate Commerce Committee. He surprised everyone by saying the agency was considering using a commercial rocket, likely provided by SpaceX or United Launch Alliance, to launch the Orion spacecraft and an upper stage rocket that would propel the unmanned spacecraft to the moon.
Bridenstine said a feasibility study was underway and a decision should come in a couple of weeks. "We are now understanding better how difficult this project is,” he explained. His remarks were in answer to a question by committee chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker who opened by asking Bridenstine about Exploration Mission-1's ongoing delays.
The next generation of NASA s Space Launch System will be 364 feet tall in the crew configuration  w...
The next generation of NASA's Space Launch System will be 364 feet tall in the crew configuration, will deliver a 105-metric-ton (115-ton) lift capacity and feature a powerful exploration upper stage.
NASA
The EM-1 test flight involves sending the Orion spacecraft on a three-week mission into lunar orbit, using the SLS. It has been regarded as NASA's first step toward returning humans to the Moon. Originally scheduled to be launched in 2017, it has been pushed back multiple times to 2020, and that date is no longer viable.
Bridenstine added: "I want to be really clear. I think we as an agency need to stick to our commitment. If we tell you, and others, that we’re going to launch in June of 2020 around the Moon, I think we should launch around the Moon in June of 2020. And I think it can be done. We should consider, as an agency, all options to accomplish that objective."
The only other option would be to use two large, privately developed heavy lift rockets instead of the single SLS booster. Bridenstine said that while not as powerful as the SLS would be, using two commercial rockets would get the job done.
Early  artist s rendering of the Orion crew capsule in lunar orbit. Work is now underway on the real...
Early artist's rendering of the Orion crew capsule in lunar orbit. Work is now underway on the real thing.
Lockheed
How the plan would work
According to Ars Technica, one commercial heavy-lift rocket would launch the fully - fueled upper stage. This could be accomplished by using a Delta Cryogenic Second Stage or the Centaur upper stage, currently used by United Launch Alliance.
A second commercial heavy-lift rocket would be used to launch the unmanned Orion capsule, along with its service module into orbit. The plan would be for the two vehicles to dock and the fueled upper stage would then inject Orion into a lunar orbit.
Bridenstine did not name rockets during the hearing. However, both United Launch Alliance and SpaceX—with its Falcon Heavy rocket—would be invited to bid on the second launch.
This handout photo released by NASA shows the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the ...
This handout photo released by NASA shows the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe onboard shortly after the Mobile Service Tower was rolled back on August 10, 2018
Bill INGALLS, NASA/AFP
Just picture this scenario for a minute - a SpaceX Falcon Heavy on one launch pad, and a few miles away, a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy on another launch pad. This would mean the two greatest commercial rocket companies coming together in an historical event.
Bridenstine said we don't have the technologies ready to coordinate two launches and an orbital rendezvous, but that can be done by 2020. It's a sure bet that the two space companies are already looking into the problem.
More about NASA, Spacxe launch system, commercial rocket, Orion, Technology
 
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