After taking steps to cancel its first big mission, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is telling his employees and the aerospace business community that the space agency “is committed to building and flying" the new rocket being developed in Alabama.
Bridenstine told a congressional hearing Wednesday that NASA is studying the possibility of shifting the first of SLS’s early missions to commercial rockets because SLS won’t be ready when the agency planned to launch. That testimony before a Senate panel set off a social media sensation. SLS skeptics and fans of SpaceX and United Launch Alliance – the two commercial companies most likely to get the launches – leaped on social media sites to praise Bridenstine, as did SLS skeptics.
The mission is test launch around the moon planned for 2020 of NASA’s new Orion capsule and the European Service Module that will supply it with power, air and water. NASA recently said it can’t make that launch schedule, and Bridenstine told the Senate using commercial rockets would be a one-time effort to keep the lunar return program on schedule.
Within 24 hours, the space press was widely saying things like this sentence from a story on the website spacenews.com: “In the day since that hearing, some have speculated that the proposal could be an attempt to demonstrate that the SLS was no longer necessary, particularly after the administration’s budget request for 2020 deferred work on the more powerful Block 1B version of SLS and moved some payloads, including elements of the lunar Gateway and the Europa Clipper mission, to other vehicles.”
Bridenstine took to NASA’s webpage Thursday to tell his workforce to “know that NASA is committed to building and flying the SLS….” He said SLS, a single large rocket that could boost both Orion and the service module at the same time, is safer and more efficient than the two-rocket solution he proposed to the Senate for the first flight.
Bridenstine said he is trying to keep NASA on schedule for a return to the moon strategy strongly supported by President Trump. The plan calls for two launches, the one in 2020 with an uncrewed Orion, and a launch in 2021 with astronauts aboard. Shifting to commercial rockets – if feasible – would allow NASA to “free up the first SLS for the launch of habitation or other hardware in in 2021.” That would get NASA back on track for a crewed flight around the moon in 2022…”