Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine

Nasa considers commercial rockets for Orion launch due to SLS delays

Image credit: reuters

Nasa has said it plans to go to the Moon in the next few years before launching a mission to Mars but a massive new rocket it is preparing will not be ready for next year’s Moon mission.

Its multi-billion-dollar Space Launch System (SLS) has been under construction for some and is expected to ferry humans and cargo into deep space.

Once complete it will be the most powerful rocket of all time, although the project has consistently struggled to meet milestones on schedule.

Speaking to Congress, Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine said he is considering switching to commercial rockets to keep the June 2020 launch date.

Bridenstine told a Senate committee that two private rockets would be needed, one to launch the Orion crew capsule and its European-built service module, the other to launch an upper stage. Orion would have to dock with the upper stage in orbit around Earth, before heading to the Moon.

The SLS rocket on the other hand could do everything in one go, which is why it is ultimately considered to be “a critical piece of what Nasa needs to build” Bridenstine said.

The only commercial options available are Elon Musk’s SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA).

However, ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is both pricey and requires two to three years from order to launch.

That means SpaceX looks to be the frontrunner to launch an Orion test flight.

At present, Orion does not have the capability to dock with anything in orbit. That outfitting would have to be completed between now and next year, Bridenstine added.

“This is 2019,” senator Roger Wicker, the committee chairman, reminded him. He said: “I’d sure like to keep us on schedule.” He noted that this option might require more money from Congress.

Nasa is pushing for a sustainable Moon programme this time around, as opposed to the come-and-go Apollo lunar landings half a century ago. The goal is to have an outpost with astronauts near the Moon to serve as a stepping-off point for lunar landings.

This first mission coming up – essentially a three-week test flight – would carry no crew and would not land. Rather, the Orion would come close to the lunar surface before taking a big lap around the Moon.

Bridenstine said Nasa will decide in the next couple weeks whether to stick with its rocket and delay - or go commercial for this one test flight.

“I want to be clear: Nasa has a history of not meeting launch dates, and I’m trying to change that,” he said.

Nasa already is using private companies to make International Space Station shipments.

Just last week, SpaceX successfully completed the first test flight of its new Dragon capsule designed for astronauts. It could begin flying crews to the station from Florida this summer.

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