NASA studying option to fly Orion EM-1 on commercial rockets
In a hearing on Capitol Hill, the head of NASA told senators that the Space Launch System rocket’s first flight would once again be delayed, but said the agency is “considering all options” to get the program back on track, including flying EM-1 with commercial rockets.
On March 14, 2019, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told members of the hearing, titled “The New Space Race: Ensuring U.S. Global Leadership on the Final Frontier,” that SLS is struggling to meet its schedule and the agency is better understanding how difficult the project is and that it will need more time.
“What are your plans to address this situation and have you considered alternatives?” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
The NASA administrator responded by maintaining that the SLS—which was originally supposed to fly the maiden EM-1 mission in 2017 before being pushed to June 2020 and now even further—is critical to the U.S. goal of returning to the Moon because of the amount of cargo—in terms of both mass and volume—it can loft into orbit and beyond. He stressed that nothing currently exists that can do what SLS is designed to do.
“We need to consider, as an agency, all options to accomplish that [June 2020] objective,” Bridenstine said. “Some of those options would include launching the Orion crew capsule and the European service module on a commercial rocket.”
Bridenstine said this was done before, sort of, via the Exploration Flight Test-1 mission in December of 2014. It used a Delta IV Heavy rocket to send an Orion crew module, sans a service module, into a high Earth orbit before re-entering the atmosphere two orbits later.
“I think we as an agency need to stick to our commitments,” Bridenstine said. “If we tell you and others that we’re going to launch in June of 2020—around the Moon, which is what EM-1 is—I think we should launch around the Moon in June of 2020, and I think it can be done.”
Using ‘off-the-shelf’ capabilities
Bridenstine, who has been leading the U.S. space agency as NASA’s 13th administrator since his Senate confirmation in April 2018, has been pushing for more public-private partnerships as directed by the White House via Space Policy Directive-1, which calls on the agency to develop a sustainable exploration program with commercial and international partners to enable humans to return to the Moon.
Acknowledging that flying the EM-1 mission using commercial rockets would be a challenge, Bridenstine said he believes industry and NASA can rise to meet it. However, there is a caveat. There is currently no rocket available that can send Orion and the European-built service module to the Moon in one go. That is the whole point of SLS.
As such, if NASA decides to go down this path, there are a number of unique challenges that would have to be overcome in less than 15 months if the agency is to maintain a June 2020 launch date.
First, while Bridenstine did not name any rockets or companies being considered, two rockets would need to be procured. Second, new flight profiles for the Orion crew/service module would need to be simulated and vehicle-specific hardware designed, built and integrated.
While one rocket would launch Orion into Earth orbit, a second would then need to launch a fully-fueled upper stage to link up with and “throw” the Orion spacecraft to the Moon. To accomplish that task, a new capability not originally manifested for EM-1 would need to be developed: docking.
“We do not have right now an ability to dock the Orion crew capsule with anything in orbit,” Bridenstine said. “So, between now and June of 2020, we would have to make that a reality.”
Possibly ensuring key senators that this is not an attempt to side-step SLS in the long run, Bridenstine stressed that this option, which NASA is only now beginning to look at and has not made a firm decision, would only be used to get the long-delayed SLS and Orion programs back on track.
“The key is we want to test, fully, the Orion crew capsule and European service module around the Moon and then ultimately maintain the SLS program so that by the time we do EM-2, it will have done a full-up ‘green run’ test,” Bridenstine said of the test that would involve firing the core stage of the SLS with its four RS-25 engines for a full mission duration of about eight minutes. “After the ‘green run’ test, we’ll have tested the SLS, we will have tested the Orion crew capsule and the European service module around the Moon, and then we can get back on track for EM-2.”
Right now, EM-2 is planned for June of 2022, but it is unclear if the latest delay would effect that date and if re-manifesting the SLS launch hardware for EM-1 to EM-2 would speed up or postpone that flight.
Moreover, it is unclear if NASA would consider putting humans on EM-2 if that ends up being the first flight of the full SLS/Orion stack. The agency briefly considered putting humans on EM-1 during a study in 2017, but it was decided that the amount of risk and resources required to fly people on an unproven crew capsule with an unproven rocket was too much.
Grim future for SLS?
To add to the murky future of SLS, the Trump administration’s proposed fiscal year 2020 budget for NASA would instruct the agency to halt the development of a new Exploration Upper Stage for SLS, which would upgrade the rocket from its initial Block 1 configuration for EM-1 and EM-2 (using a United Launch Alliance Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage as an upper stage) to Block 1B.
If the FY 2020 budget is passed as-is by Congress, this means Block 1B would be delayed indefinitely until the Block 1 version is finished and flying on an annual basis.
Block 1 SLS is expected to be able to lift up to 95 metric tons to low-Earth orbit or 26 metric tons to the Moon. This is enough to send the Orion spacecraft, but not enough to send much of anything else, including modules for the Lunar Gateway, which initially planned to fly as a co-manifested payload with crewed missions starting with EM-3 in 2024.
However, with Block 1B and its 105-metric-tons to low-Earth orbit capacity potentially sidelined, this means that commercial rockets might have to pick up the slack in building Gateway. This would likely effect the overall design of the outpost as well.
Moreover, the Block 1 isn’t capable enough to send the Europa Clipper mission on a 3-year direct trajectory to Jupiter, as NASA is planning to do with a Block 1B in 2023. Because of that, the space agency is looking to save up to $700 million dollars on the flagship mission by lifting it on a commercial rocket, but take a longer trajectory using several gravity assist flybys of Venus and Earth. But this would still need congressional approval as the legislative body mandated it fly atop SLS in a previous budget.
Is SLS even needed anymore?
While the FY 2020 budget proposal has a long way to go before being passed by Congress, assuming it does without any changes, it would mean that only SLS Block 1 would be flying in the near future.
As such, that means its only use, as currently manifested, would be to send humans to the Lunar Gateway or other cislunar destinations. But if EM-1 is flown using commercial rockets, does that mean SLS is needed at all?
This is still unclear as the only commercial rockets that are human rated, or almost human rated, are SpaceX’s Block 5 Falcon 9 and ULA’s Atlas V N22 as both will fly humans via Crew Dragon and Starliner missions, respectively.
But could those rockets orbit the 26-metric-ton Orion spacecraft? In short, no.
The heaviest payload flown by SpaceX, atop a Falcon 9, was the Crew Dragon Demo-1 mission earlier this month. It’s mass was 12 metric tons—less than half that need for Orion. While it is certainly possible for the Falcon Heavy to launch the deep space spacecraft, that rocket is not human rated and the company has no plans to do so.
ULA, the other company with the potential to send Orion into orbit, could only use its Delta IV Heavy with its 28-metric-ton capacity. But just like with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the Delta IV Heavy is not human rated and it is unknown how long it would take or how much it would cost to certify it to send people into space.
So, while it may be possible to fly EM-1 with no crew, as is currently planned on SLS, there is no current commercial capability to fly Orion with humans.
SLS is still king, for now
According to Ars Technica’s Eric Berger, ULA said in a statement following Bridenstine’s suggestion of using commercial rockets to fly EM-1 that the company recognizes the “unparalleled capabilities” of the SLS rocket for Moon and Mars exploration architectures.
“We are proud to have worked collaboratively with The Boeing Company to develop the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) for the first flight of SLS,” the statement reads. “If asked, we can provide a description of the capabilities for our launch vehicles for meeting NASA’s needs, but acknowledge that these do not match the super heavy lift performance and mission capabilities provided by SLS for the Exploration Missions proposed by NASA.”
Flying EM-1 on commercial rockets might be politically doable, but replacing SLS with those same rockets could be a hard sell as Congress has been one of the super-heavy-lift rocket’s biggest supporters since its inclusion in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.
SLS didn’t start from scratch, however. It began with designs essentially resurrected from the Ares V rocket in the now-cancelled Constellation program which ran from 2005 to 2010.
Since 2010, the agency has spent more than $14 billion on its development. That doesn’t include the nearly $5 billion spent during Constellation. Much of the rocket is being developed in states represented by senators that have large influences in what language goes into NASA-related funding bills, so it isn’t likely that the program will end anytime soon.
Political realities aside, should NASA ever decide to pursue a program to fly human Moon missions on commercial rockets, there are other problems.
First, as of right now SpaceX isn’t interested in human-rating Falcon Heavy and is instead focusing its efforts on its Starship Super Heavy rocket project. It is unclear if the company would change its mind should NASA ask.
Second, the Delta IV Heavy isn’t expected to be around forever. ULA is phasing out its Delta IV Medium rockets soon and will rely on its Atlas V rocket variants and future Vulcan launcher. Delta IV Heavy, which uses the same Common Booster Core as the Medium variants, is expected to remain an option for the U.S. Air Force for as long as it desires, but it too will eventually fade into history.
A potential third option could become available in the early 2020s, however. Blue Origin’s partially-reusable New Glenn rocket is expected to easily have the capacity to loft Orion. But until it is human rated, no people are likely to fly atop it either.
So, despite the push for more public-private partnerships in NASA’s “Moon to Mars” campaign, the SLS remains still a necessary key piece of that plan, even if it is only ever used to fly people to the Lunar Gateway.
For now, NASA is only studying the commercial option. But it has apparently been doing so, according to Bridenstine, since it became apparent last week that an EM-1 flight using SLS would mean a delay beyond June of 2020. How much of a delay was not discussed.
Bridenstine said in the Senate hearing that he expects to know the results of the study in the next couple weeks. This report is also expected to include how much this alternative launch option would cost, which might require “help” from Congress, the administrator said.
“Every moment counts,” Bridenstine said. “NASA has a history of not meeting launch dates. I’m trying to change that.”
Video courtesy of C-SPAN via WordsmithFL
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity.