NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has proposed the use of commercial rockets for next year's launch of Orion spacecraft on a trip around the Moon.
He explained to a Senate committee that the Space Launch System or SLS, the space agency's own multibillion-dollar rocket, will not be ready for launch any time soon. The SLS has been in development for the past decade.
NASA Turning To Commercial Rockets
Orion is a spacecraft designed to take astronauts to destinations in deep space. Its first flight, the Exploration Mission-1 or simply EM-1, is scheduled to take place by June 2020. The uncrewed spacecraft will fly around the Moon for six days, with a total mission duration of three weeks.
The EM-1 is supposed to be the SLS' grand debut. However, the heavy-lift rocket has endured several delays and budget overruns in the past couple of years.
If NASA wants to get back on track and launch the spacecraft by next year, they will have to abandon the SLS for the meantime and turn to commercial rockets. However, while there are commercial rockets that are ready to fly ASAP, making the switch will not be easy.
A New Way To Explore Space
Bridenstine acknowledged that the Orion spacecraft and the European Service Module will be too heavy for any commercial rockets that are now in use. He proposed to split the mission into two stages: a rocket will launch the Orion and the European Service Module in orbit around the Earth and then another rocket will launch an upper stage separately that will boost the spacecraft into the Moon.
Dallas Bienhoff, the founder of the Cislunar Space Development Company, explained that the process will be like a tractor pulling farm equipment. The idea of the space tug, which NASA has been studying since the 60s, could change the way the space agency launches its deep space missions in the future.
"One of the issues that we have as a space industry, which has led us to the Space Launch System, is we insist on putting all of the mass per mission on a single launch," said Bienhoff to The Verge.
NASA has so far spent $14 billion to develop the SLS and it is expected to cost $1 billion per launch. The SLS, if it ever gets completed, will be powerful enough to carry heavy payload to space, but commercial rockets are the cheaper alternative. SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launches at about $100 million while United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy costs around $350 million per flight.
The second stage will also be something that the space agency needs to consider before switching to commercial rockets. The upper-stage rocket has to meet with the Orion and the European Service Module in orbit, but the docking technology needed for this to work does not exist yet.
If NASA pulls it off, it could lead to a future in which critical components will be launched one by one to be assembled in-space, foregoing the need for bigger rockets.
"By spreading the equipment over a couple of launches, and then using in-space manufacturing and assembly, we can actually accomplish this in a much more cost-effective way than if we launched that sort of monolithic spacecraft," added Andrew Rush, CEO and president of Made In Space.