NASA con­sid­ers com­mer­cial part­ners

After cost over­runs and de­lays on SLS, the agency is look­ing at other rock­ets

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Cha­beli Her­rera

NASA’s plan to fin­ish build­ing the world’s largest rocket for a mis­sion to the moon may now go in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion with com­mer­cial part­ners in­stead, a ma­jor blow to a pro­gram that has long been plagued by chal­lenges.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing cost over­runs and sched­ule de­lays to the Space Launch Sys­tem, as the rocket is called, NASA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Jim Bri­den­s­tine tes­ti­fied be­fore a Se­nate com­mit­tee Wed­nes­day that the agency is look­ing at us­ing com­mer­cial rock­ets for what was to be the SLS rocket’s first launch.

SLS was sup­posed to head to space on its first test mis­sion no later than June 2020 car­ry­ing the un­crewed Orion as­tro­naut cap­sule and the Eu­ro­pean Ser­vice Mod­ule, a space­craft that sup­plies Orion with the nec­es­sary propul­sion and life sup­port ser­vices astro­nauts need. But last week, Bri­den­s­tine said, the agency was made aware that SLS is not go­ing to be ready in time.

The pro­gram has a his­tory of strug­gling to stick to its sched­ule due to the com­plex­ity of the rocket. SLS has cost NASA more than $12.2 bil­lion so far — and it’s

still not fin­ished.

In a change of strat­egy, Bri­den­s­tine said he has di­rected NASA to look at how it could use heavy-lift com­mer­cial launch ve­hi­cles — rock­ets like SpaceX’s Fal­con Heavy and United Launch Al­liance’s Delta IV Heavy — for the first test mis­sion in­stead.

“Cer­tainly there are op­por­tu­ni­ties to uti­lize com­mer­cial ca­pa­bil­i­ties to put the Orion crew cap­sule and the Eu­ro­pean Ser­vice Mod­ule in or­bit around the moon by June of 2020, which was our orig­i­nally stated ob­jec­tive,” Bri­den­s­tine told Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chair­man of the Com­mit­tee on Com­merce, Science and Trans­porta­tion. “I’ve tasked the agency to look into how we might ac­com­plish that ob­jec­tive.”

Bri­den­s­tine said that doesn’t mean SLS will go away — NASA ex­pects to con­tinue work­ing on the rocket for the sec­ond mis­sion, with crew on­board.

“The goal is to get back on track,” he said.

But no rocket cur­rently de­vel­oped can carry Orion and the Eu­ro­pean Ser­vice Mod­ule into or­bit around the moon. Only SLS, billed as the largest rocket ever built — with 10 per­cent more thrust than the Saturn V rocket that car­ried the Apollo astro­nauts to the moon — has been de­signed to per­form the task.

The idea, Bri­den­s­tine said, is to use two heavy-lift rock­ets to first launch Orion and the Eu­ro­pean Ser­vice Mod­ule and then the space­craft’s up­per stage into or­bit around Earth. The two will then be docked and thrown into or­bit around the moon.

But the abil­ity to dock Orion with some­thing in or­bit is also not avail­able — yet. By June 2020, NASA plans to make that op­tion a re­al­ity, Bri­den­s­tine said.

“This is 2019,” Wicker told him, in­cred­u­lous.

“Here is the glory of the United States of Amer­ica,” Bri­den­s­tine replied. “We have the amaz­ing ca­pa­bil­ity that ex­ists right now that we can use off-the-shelf in or­der to ac­com­plish this ob­jec­tive.”

The ad­min­is­tra­tor ar­gued that NASA could use tech­nol­ogy al­ready de­vel­oped to make the plan a re­al­ity. The de­ci­sion to go for­ward with this plan could come “in the next cou­ple of weeks,” Bri­den­s­tine said.

But there are a num­ber of unan­swered ques­tions, in­clud­ing how to fund the new di­rec­tion and which of NASA’s two rocket op­tions would be most fea­si­ble.

SpaceX’s Fal­con Heavy has only launched once on a demo flight — with two more launches from the Space Coast planned this year — while ULA’s Delta IV Heavy has the ad­van­tage of hav­ing al­ready launched the Orion cap­sule in 2014 on a test mis­sion to or­bit Earth. But it doesn’t have the quick turn­around: ULA typ­i­cally con­tracts about three years in ad­vance for a Delta IV Heavy mis­sion.

If cost is top of mind for the agency, Fal­con Heavy would likely be less ex­pen­sive, at most $150 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to com­ments from CEO Elon Musk last year. Delta IV Heavy, mean­while, would cost more than $350 mil­lion a launch.

Ei­ther would still be a steal, said an­a­lyst Chris Quilty, founder of space in­dus­try strat­egy firm Quilty An­a­lyt­ics.

“If you launch on a Delta IV Heavy at $450 mil­lion bucks, you’re still sav­ing half or more than half of what it would cost you for an SLS mis­sion,” Quilty said. But with the two launches re­quired, the new plan will still near the cost of SLS. Es­ti­mates put the mega-rocket at about $1 bil­lion per flight.

Ear­lier this week, NASA de­cided to cut some of the fund­ing to the SLS rocket in its fis­cal year 2020 bud­get pro­posal re­leased Mon­day.

The pro­gram will get $1.78 bil­lion un­der the cur­rent pro­posal, a de­crease of about $375 mil­lion from 2019, to pre­vent SLS’s “sig­nif­i­cant cost and sched­ule chal­lenges from fur­ther di­vert­ing re­sources from other ex­plo­ration ac­tiv­i­ties.”

The SLS pro­gram, and its pri­mary con­trac­tor Boe­ing, also got dinged in a scathing au­dit re­leased by NASA’s Of­fice of the In­spec­tor Gen­eral in Oc­to­ber.

“At its cur­rent rate, we pro­ject Boe­ing will ex­pend at least $8.9 bil­lion through 2021 — dou­ble the amount ini­tially planned — while de­liv­ery of the first Core Stage has slipped 2½ years from June 2017 to De­cem­ber 2019 and may slip fur­ther,” the re­port found. The date did slip.

All of it is in­dica­tive of a shift in sup­port for NASA’s largest-ever rocket, which has had pow­er­ful back­ing in Congress. But with a fast time­line to get to the moon set by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, NASA fi­nally seems to be re­lent­ing, Quilty said.

“That sched­ule sim­ply can­not be achieved us­ing the SLS,” Quilty said. “The sig­nif­i­cant ques­tion here is, if this pro­posal goes through and if it is suc­cess­ful, how can Congress pos­si­bly jus­tify the on­go­ing devel­op­ment of the SLS?”

Bri­den­s­tine said Wed­nes­day that NASA still plans to use SLS for the first crewed mis­sion of Orion, sched­uled for 2023, fol­low­ing a full set of test­ing.

“After the green run test we will have tested the SLS, we will have tested the Orion crew cap­sule and the Eu­ro­pean Ser­vice Mod­ule around the moon and then we can get back on track,” Bri­den­s­tine said.

CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY

NASA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Jim Bri­den­s­tine tes­ti­fies be­fore the Se­nate Com­merce, Science and Trans­porta­tion Com­mit­tee in the Dirk­sen Se­nate Of­fice Build­ing on Capi­tol Hill Wed­nes­day in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

HO/GETTY-AFP

NASA an­nounced Wed­nes­day that the devel­op­ment of its next ma­jor rocket, SLS, was fac­ing new de­lays, and that the space agency now wanted to en­trust the next mis­sion around the Moon to the pri­vate sec­tor.

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