NASA’s new budget raises questions about the future of its SLS rocket

With a Republican White House and a Democratic House of Representatives, it almost goes without saying that the President’s fiscal year 2020 budget request won’t get very far within Congress. Yet within NASA’s budget, there are intriguing hints about the increasingly commercial nature of lunar exploration.

Two sources familiar with the thinking of Vice President Mike Pence, who leads U.S. space policy, have said he is frustrated at the slow pace of the nation’s efforts to send humans to the Moon. In particular, he is growing tired of delays with NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, which originally was due to launch in 2017, and is now likely delayed until 2021 at the earliest.

Notably, President Donald Trump’s budget request calls for a 17 percent reduction in the budget for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, once viewed as the backbone of the space agency’s efforts to explore deep space. The president’s budget request chips away at the supremacy of the SLS booster in three important ways.

Big changes

First of all, with the budget cut, the president’s proposal “defers” funding for the Exploration Upper Stage, the more powerful second stage that would allow a future version of the SLS rocket to lift both the Orion capsule and large chunks of payload to lunar orbit.

“The Budget proposes reforms to the SLS program to prevent the program’s significant cost and schedule challenges from further diverting resources from other exploration activities,” the president’s budget overview states. This is a reflection of a desire to complete the initial, oft-delayed “Block 1” version of the SLS as expeditiously as possible. Future upgrades will have to wait, or may never come at all.

The budget also opens the door to commercial launches of cargo to lunar orbit, including comments of its proposed Gateway station there. “Lunar Gateway elements would be launched on competitively procured vehicles, complementing crew transport flights on the SLS and Orion,” the document states.

This is a significant change from the previous plans, which called for “co-manifesting” the Orion spacecraft alongside modules of the Gateway onto a single SLS rocket, with its enhanced upper stage. The Block 1 version of the SLS is not powerful enough for such co-manifested missions.

Finally, the budget says that a robotic probe to Europa, due to launch in the 2020s, will not launch on the SLS booster, but rather a private rocket. (As Ars previously reported, this almost certainly would be SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy). “By launching that mission on a commercial launch vehicle, NASA would save over $700 million, allowing multiple new activities to be funded across the Agency,” the budget document states.

With this proposal, therefore, NASA is taking away a key upgrade to the Space Launch System’s upper stage, proposing to launch Gateway on commercial rockets, and removing a high-profile mission from the launch manifest-the Europa Clipper. This leaves just one real task for SLS, which no commercial rocket can presently perform, the direct delivery of a crewed Orion capsule to a high lunar orbit.

Bridenstine on SLS

During a speech at Kennedy Space Center on …read more

Source:: Daily times


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