NASA is building a giant rocket to return astronauts to the moon and, eventually, transport the first crews to and from Mars.
But the agency's leaders are already contemplating the withdrawal of the Space Launching System (SLS), as the imposing and yet-to-fly government rocket is called, and the Orion space capsule that will travel to the top.
NASA is anticipating the emergence of two reusable, and probably more affordable, mega-rockets that private aerospace companies are creating.
Those systems are the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), which is being built by Elon Musk & # 39; s SpaceX; and the New Glenn, a pitcher that is being built by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.
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"I think our opinion is that if those commercial capabilities are put online, we will eventually remove the government system, and we will simply move to a launching purchase capacity for those [rockets], "Stephen Jurczyk, badociate administrator of NASA, told Business Insider at The Economist Space Summit on November 1.
However, NASA will soon find itself in a strange position, since the two private launch systems can defeat SLS back to the Moon, and one of them could be the first to send people to Mars.
The super size fight with SLS.
The space launch system is often called super-heavy rocket. This means that it is designed to charge a payload of more than 55 tons (roughly the mbad of a battle tank) in low Earth orbit.
"We need a [super-]ability to launch heavy cargo, "said Jurczyk." Without it, we will not have a secure, reliable and affordable architecture and implementation for human exploration. "
Several iterations of SLS are planned up to the 2020s, and the first is called Block 1. It is expected that this rocket will have a height of approximately 322 feet and can lift about 70 tons of hardware and supplies from the orbiting spacecraft.
NASA hopes to test the first rocket of Block 1 in June 2020 on a flight called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). The mission aims to demonstrate that SLS is safe and reliable by sending an unmanned Orion spacecraft around the Moon and back to Earth.
An exploration mission with crew 2 (EM-2) would follow several years later.
But so far, NASA has spent about $ 11.9 billion on SLS, and it is projected that the agency will need $ 4-5 billion more than it has planned for 2021. In connection with this, the launch date scheduled for EM-1 in June 2020 is approximately 2.5 years ago. program.
An internal audit of the NASA program found that preventable accidents, contract management problems and other performance issues related to Boeing, the prime contractor, are primarily responsible for costs and delays.
Such problems have some experts who estimate an average cost of $ 5 billion per launch of SLS, which is a one-time rocket. Presumably, SpaceX or Blue Origin could be launched at a fraction of that price since their next vehicles are reusable.
If there are more setbacks with the SLS program, NASA can also see SpaceX beat the agency with a manned mission. This is because Musk, the founder of the company, is following aggressive timelines to explore the solar system with BFR.
How SpaceX could beat NASA back to the Moon
SpaceX employees have been working in a tent in Los Angeles to build the upper half of the system, called the Big Falcon spacecraft.
Musk and Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, have said the spacecraft could be making short launches called "jumps" starting in 2019.
Musk also plans to modify a higher stage of its successful Falcon 9 rocket in a "mini BFR ship" to test and refine some of the most challenging aspects of the design of a fully reusable spacecraft. One obstacle: try a heat shield that survives the fiery reentry into Earth's atmosphere (to protect a crew and allow the spacecraft to feed and launch again).
In 2020 or 2021, it aims to launch a fully integrated version of BFR, a Big Falcon Booster with the Big Falcon Spaceship in orbit around the Earth. (At about the same time, Blue Origin plans to use New Glenn, an important section from which it can land on Earth and be reused, to deliver a lander to the surface of the moon to explore the water ice).
If the first SpaceX orbital launch and then the unmanned missions fly without an explosion or other incident, the company aims to launch a Japanese billionaire and a group of artists around the Moon in 2023.
It remains to be seen how the space agency would react to such a feat, which is essentially a creative repetition of the Apollo 8 mission of 1968. In fact, 2023 is the same year that NASA plans to launch EM-2 around the Moon.
It is also unknown what NASA would do if SpaceX launches its first unmanned missions to Mars with BFR in 2022, followed by the first manned missions to the red planet in 2024. That is several years before the space agency expects to land people in Moon. , and perhaps a decade before NASA would attempt a manned landing on Mars.
"We have not really involved SpaceX in the way we would work together in BFR, and eventually we would arrive at a mission on Mars," Jurczyk said of NASA's leadership. "My guess is that it's coming."
A US space agency without a US spacecraft.
At this time, said Jurczyk, he and others in the space agency's leadership are focused on the test launches for their commercial crew program, a competition for private companies to build and launch US-made spacecraft.
The ultimate goal of Commercial Crew is to reactivate the space flight capabilities of the US. UU That the agency lost when it withdrew the space shuttle fleet in 2011. (Since then, NASA has relied solely on Russia to take its astronauts to the 150-billion-dollar International Space Station and from it.)
Boeing and SpaceX have designed and manufactured space capsules for seven people, which are about to be approved for unmanned and manned test launches. SpaceX is currently looking to fly first with its Crew Dragon ship.
"Your first unmanned flight test, at this time, is scheduled for January, followed by, not many months later, perhaps in the spring, your first flight test with a crew to the space station," said Jurczyk.
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Once Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner boats prove they can launch safely and reliably, the agency's leadership will further discuss its future in deep space with BFR and Blue Origin & # 39; s New Glenn .
"The way we get involved will depend to a large extent on the pace at which those systems and capabilities are developed," said Jurczyk.
The key for NASA is to reach some kind of very heavy lifting capacity, as quickly as possible.
"At this moment we see that the way to do it is through SLS, because we have the advantage and the use of these technologies and legacy systems," he said, referring to the fact that SLS will use space shuttle engines and others well. understood hardware
"That's where we are," Jurczyk added. "We know we need that type of BFR, and whatever New Glenn evolves, the heavy-load capacity if we're going to do a human exploration of the solar system, we do not think another approach is so safe and affordable." , and reliable. "