Image of the SLS rocket ready for launch

Nasa moon rocket and capsule launch delayed to 2019

Image credit: NASA

The launch of a $23 billion rocket due to fly around the moon and eventually help put humans on Mars has been delayed until 2019, according to a recent Nasa announcement.

Nasa had planned to launch its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket in November 2018 from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The SLS program is a constituent of Nasa’s deep-space exploration plans. Designed to be the most powerful rocket ever built, the SLS rocket would replace the retired Space Shuttle and take Nasa astronauts further into space than ever before. Its planned functions include sending the deep-space Orion capsule into high lunar orbit and eventually helping to send astronauts and equipment to Mars.

In September 2011, it was announced that the SLS program had an estimated development cost of $18 billion through 2017. Some organisations, including The Planetary Society and the Space Frontier Foundation, argued that the program was unnecessarily expensive and would consume the funds available for other space exploration projects.

By September 2018, Nasa will have spent $23 billion on the rocket, capsule, launch site and support systems, according to an audit by Nasa’s Office of Inspector General. A further $9 billion was spent on the shelved Constellation lunar exploration program, which aimed to put astronauts back on the moon by 2020.

At the suggestion of US President Donald Trump’s administration, Nasa began reviewing the implications of adding a two-person crew for the rocket’s trial flight.

However, Robert M. Lightwood Jr., the agency’s acting administrator announced that it would be more appropriate to wait until a second flight before manning the spacecraft. Installing systems to support a live crew could cost up to $900 million more and would likely delay the flight until 2020, Lightwood said.

Nasa’s research “really reaffirmed that the baseline plan we have in place was the best way for us to go,” he added during a conference call.

Even without a crew, the rocket will not be ready for its first launch until 2019, with a second flight expected after 2021, said William H Gerstenmaier, Nasa’s associate administrator. Delays to the program are largely due to technical issues relating to the development of the rocket and Orion, as well as tornado damage to the rocket’s manufacturing plant in New Orleans.

“We’re really building a system,” said Gerstenmaier. “It is much, much more than one flight.”

The SLS rocket incorporates engines left over from the space shuttle program and shuttle-derived solid rocket boosters. It will have the capacity to put 70 tonnes into orbit around Earth, with later versions expected to carry nearly twice that load.

A more detailed timeframe for the SLS program is expected within the next month.

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