So long SLS – we hardly knew you?
It's beginning to look like this might be the epitaph etched onto NASA's $ 35 trillion Space Launch System, a towering 322-foot beast of a rocket capable (if it's ever built) of lifting at least 70 metric tons of payload into orbit – or visiting the moon, or even Mars.
Now, there is now certainty at this date that the Space Launch System, or SLS, will actually be canceled. In fact, responding to reports of delays and funding cuts in the program, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine recently reassured space fans that "NASA is [still] committed to building and flying the SLS."
Then again, the fact that Bridenstine field compiled to say that all suggests something is up ̵
So how big is the risk here?
Follow the money
Consider the evidence
The Trump Administration released its Fiscal 2020 Presidential Budget Request for NASA this month, proposing that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration be funded with $ 21 billion in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 2019. That's nearly a 9% increase from the NASA budget proposed in President Trump's first year in office, but 2% (or about $ 500 million) less than Congress awarded the agency last year, for example.
Many programs within NASA are cut, including funds for earth science projects (down 8%) astrophysics (down 20%), and a "Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope" (phased out entirely). In terms of sheer dollar value, however, few programs got hit more than the Space Launch System (SLS), which could see its funding cut by $ 375 million as NASA's "defers" development of a planned "Block 1B" upgrade to the rocket's lift capacity.
Now, don't cry too hard for SLS. The project has been finalized to receive nearly $ 1.8 billion in funding next year, with a further $ 1.3 billion being tagged on to develop Lockheed's Orion Crew Vehicle, and more than $ 800 million for a "Lunar Gateway" for Orion to visit – preparatory to a moon. landing.
Still, it appears that NASA may be losing confidence in its pet project, as shown by some of the other things NASA administrator Bridenstine revealed
Move over SLS. SpaceX can handle this
A couple of weeks ago, while giving testimony before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Bridenstine warned senators that the Space Launch System (SLS) "is struggling to meet its schedule" for an Initial unmanned launch around the moon by June 2020. After suffering innumerable delays and schedule misses throughout its development, Exploration Mission-1, which would use an SLS rocket to sling and unmanned orion capsule past the moon and then bring it home again, could potentially be postponed into 2021, say analysts
Now, there are still options for using SLS to reach the moon in 2020. Just this week, for example, NASASpaceflight.com reported on a potential NASA move to curtail a planned six-month "Stage Green Run" program including an eight-minute test firing of SLS's RS-25 main engines (simulating the engines' undergo when launching to space). Instead, NASA would authorize a brief five-second static fire test on-site at Kennedy Space Center, shaving months off the timeline for launching EM-1.
Now, cutting corners on quality assurance may not be the best way to ensure a problem-free launch. But at least with the unmanned EM-1 mission, it would pose no risk to human life. If it accelerates the SLS program, and brings the rocket closer to completion, it's likely to be willing to sign off on the idea.
Especially when you consider the alternative. [InhisSenatetestimonyBridenstinesuggestedthatinNASAmightconsiderusingrocketsotherthanSLStolaunchthemissionForexampleoneheavyliftrocket(suchasaULADeltaIVorSpaceX'sFalconHeavy)couldbeusedtoputOrionintoorbitAsecondrocketcouldthenliftafullyfueled third rocket into orbit with orion and serve as its propulsion to the moon and back.
It wouldn't be a one shot mission around the moon, as an SLS launch could provide. Then again, Delta and Falcon are both proven launch vehicles and ready to fly. SLS isn't.