NASA’s Administrator Jim Bridenstine raised eyebrows before the U.S. Senate yesterday, saying NASA plans to head to the Moon next year, but to do so on others’ commercial rockets.
Bridenstine argued that NASA needs to stick to its commitment of sending the Orion crew capsule around the Moon by next year. One way to do that would be using a rocket other than the SLS. “We need to consider, as an agency, all options to accomplish that objective,” Bridenstine said during the hearing. “Some of those options would include launching the Orion crew capsule… on a commercial rocket.”
SLS, short for Space Launch System, is a Space Shuttle-derived super heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle. Originally designed to replace the retired Space Shuttle, the SLS would become the most powerful rocket in existence with a total thrust greater than that of the Saturn V.
While the SLS has had grand plans, it has had a more grand budget. The SLS is nearly two times over budget and has faced numerous timing set-backs. It is unlikely it would be in a position to launch anything next year. And even if it were, the price tag is enormous –NASA estimates a launch would cost roughly $2.5billion each.
Due to issues of time and money, Bridenstine is considering using others’ rockets, including those from SpaceX and United Launch Alliance. However, the power needed to lift the Orion mission to space doesn’t exist yet. Until it does, NASA is considering doing two launches with two heavy-lift commercial vehicles. One rocket would launch the Orion and European Service Module together, placing them in orbit, and another rocket would then launch an upper stage, which is a rocket with an engine capable of providing enough power to boost the capsule and module to the Moon. The upper stage would dock with Orion and the module in orbit, in order to complete the mission.
Since the time work began on SLS, private rocket companies have sprung up, including SpaceX, which showcased their heavy lift rocket, the Falcon Heavy, last year. With other companies like it developing new rocket technology, more affordable methods of getting into space and to the Moon are likely to come in the coming months and years.