It’s a make-or-break moment for NASA’s next mega-rocket: the Space Launch System.
Why it matters: The rocket – about 10 years in development and billions of dollars over budget – is expected to launch for the first time this year. Its success is the key to NASA’s plans to bring people and payloads to deep space destinations like the Moon.
- “This is the year SLS needs to show that it can work,” Planety Society’s Casey Dreier told me. “It was better to do something. It’s been ten years now. ”
Running the news: NASA is expected to stage what will be one of the biggest tests of SLS yet on January 1
- The test will see the four engines from the core phase of the huge rocket shoot together without taking off.
- The rocket lights up for as many as eight minutes to see how the booster can behave during a real launch.
What’s next: SLS is expected to launch into space for the first time in November 2021, sending an unoccupied Orion capsule around the moon and back to Earth.
But but, but … whether it happens on time remains to be seen.
- There is not much margin in the schedule for possible delays and corrections that may occur as a result of the test trigger or other issues, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office released last month.
- If the first flight with SLS and Orion is delayed, it could have a cascading effect on NASA’s future lunar missions, including the planned 2024-manned lunar landing, William Russell, one of the authors of the GAO report, said.
Link: Congress instructed NASA to build the SLS in 2010.
- Today, there are commercial space companies – including Blue Origin and SpaceX – working to develop rockets that can launch astronauts and payloads to the Moon and beyond at a cheaper price than an SLS.
- Some have suggested that NASA should buy a trip to the Moon aboard a commercial rocket instead of SLS, at least initially.
The other side: Proponents of the SLS program say that even with these commercial heavy-duty launchers expected to come online, NASA still needs its own launch vehicle to meet its unique needs as an investigative agency.
- The entire system – including SLS and Orion – is built to work together, so it’s not practical to swap in a different kind of rocket at this stage of development, Dreier said.
- The SLS program has also brought much-needed jobs back to NASA and the contractors – Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Northrop Grumman – responsible for building and testing the rocket.
Bottom line: NASA’s future deep space research plans depend on SLS’s success – and soon.