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Target for SLS rocket’s first launch shifts to 2021

SLS tank test
NASA engineers load a test article for the SLS liquid-oxygen tank into its test stand at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. (NASA Photo)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told lawmakers today that the first launch of the heavy-lift Space Launch System was “definitely achievable by 2021,” seemingly signaling a shift in the plan for a 2020 maiden launch.

Bridenstine’s testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation came just a day after he wrote in a blog post that NASA was “staying on schedule for flying the Artemis 1 mission with our Orion spacecraft on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket next year, and for sending the first crewed mission, Artemis 2, to the lunar vicinity by 2022.”

Artemis 1, previously known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, would launch an uncrewed Orion capsule on a test flight looping around the moon. Artemis 2 would trace a similar course with a crew on board, in preparation for sending two astronauts to the moon’s surface in 2024 via a yet-to-be-built Gateway space outpost in lunar orbit..

Today, Bridenstine said Artemis 2 was scheduled for the 2022-2023 time frame. He stuck with the 2024 date for the lunar landing.

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Watchdogs worry over NASA super-rocket

Space Launch System
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Space Launch System in flight. (NASA Illustration)

The federal government’s watchdog agency says getting NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket off the ground is likely to take longer and cost more than the space agency says it will.

Any issues that crop up in the months ahead could push the first uncrewed SLS launch, known as Artemis 1, from its planned mid-2020 timetable to mid-2021, the Government Accountability Office said in a study issued today.

What’s more, the GAO says NASA has been shifting costs forward to make it look as if expenses for the first launch have grown by $1 billion, when the actual adjusted cost growth is $1.8 billion.

Schedule and cost issues for SLS are particularly problematic because the rocket has been selected to carry NASA astronauts to the moon by 2024.

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NASA considers going commercial for moon flight

Orion spaceship
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Orion deep-space crew capsule with its European Service Module placed beneath it and an upper stage powering it out of Earth orbit. (NASA Illustration)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told a Senate hearing today that his agency is looking into an option to double up commercial launch vehicles in order to keep a crucial test mission for its Orion spaceship and European-built service module on schedule for mid-2020.

The shift would take NASA’s own heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, or SLS, out of the rotation for the uncrewed test flight around the moon, known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1.

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Budget proposal tightens the screws on science

Space Launch System
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Space Launch System in flight. (NASA Illustration)sls

The White House’s $4.7 trillion spending plan for fiscal year 2020 aims to give a boost to the Space Force, but would dial down work on NASA’s Space Launch System, zero out the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, leave salmon in the lurch and slash science spending on other fronts.

When it comes to outer space, the brightest spotlight falls on lunar exploration and space commercialization — which is in line with the priorities of the National Space Council, headed by Vice President Mike Pence. And when it comes to earthly realms in science and technology, artificial intelligence and quantum computing shine.

It’s important to remember, however, that every year’s budget request is pronounced “dead on arrival” by critics in Congress. That’s particularly so this year, with Democrats in control of the House.

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NASA watchdogs document rocket missteps

SLS test intertank on barge
A structural test version of the intertank for NASA’s new deep-space rocket, the Space Launch System, arrives at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in March for testing aboard the barge Pegasus. The intertank is the second piece of structural hardware for the massive SLS core stage. (NASA Photo)

NASA’s Space Launch System, the rocket that’s being designed to send astronauts to the moon and Mars, seems likely to miss the schedule for its first test launch in 2020 due to poor management by Boeing and its overseers, the space agency’s auditors say.

report released today by the NASA Office of Inspector General projects that the delivery of the first Boeing-built core stage for the heavy-lift SLS rocket may slip beyond its currently scheduled date of December 2019. What’s more, the cost of SLS development is on track to amount to at least $8.9 billion, which is twice what was originally budgeted, the auditors say.

“Boeing’s cost and schedule challenges are likely to worsen, given that the SLS has yet to undergo its ‘Green Run Test’ — a major milestone that integrates and tests the Core Stage components,” NASA said in a summary of the report.

To meet the schedule for an uncrewed test flight around the moon by 2020, followed by a crewed flight in 2022 and the development of a new upper-stage booster for flights after that, the SLS program will have to be given a “major increase in funding” and renegotiate NASA’s contract with Boeing, the report says.

Much of the blame was laid on mismanagement at Boeing.

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NASA’s SLS rocket engine test gets cut short

NASA put a developmental model of the RS-25 engine for its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket through a hot-fire test today at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in attendance. Although the test firing ended at 319 seconds rather than the originally planned 500 seconds, officials said the test achieved all its planned objectives.

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NASA fires shuttle rocket engine to the max

Rocket engine firing
Exhaust billows out from a rocket test tower at NASA’s Stennis Space Center during a test firing of an RS-25 rocket engine. (NASA via YouTube)

Like a “Spinal Tap” guitarist, NASA turned the dial up to 11 today on a souped-up rocket engine from the bygone space shuttle program.

The 260-second engine firing at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi represented the toughest test yet for hardware that’s destined to go on the Space Launch System, NASA’s heavy-lift rocket.

NASA plans to use sets of Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 rocket engines left over from the shuttle program in the main propulsion systems on the first four SLS rockets, four at a time. Fourteen of the 16 hydrogen-fueled engines were previously installed on the shuttle orbiters, which were retired in 2011 and are now on display in museums.

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NASA resets date for SLS rocket’s debut for 2020

Will it fly on 2019 or 2020? NASA’s latest schedule for the maiden launch of its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket has it both ways. Today the space agency said June 2020 is now the official time frame for Exploration Mission-1, or EM-1, which would send the SLS and NASA’s Orion capsule on an uncrewed trip beyond lunar orbit and back. But in an SLS status update, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said a December 2019 date is still possible if planners address the manufacturing and production schedule risks that were identified during a review of the project.

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Systima gets a piece of the action for SLS

Space Launch System
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Space Launch System in flight. (NASA Illustration)

When NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket starts carrying astronauts beyond Earth orbit in the 2020s, it’ll also be carrying a key component built by Kirkland, Wash.-based Systima Technologies.

Systima will be responsible for providing a 27.6-foot-wide, ring-shaped joint assembly that separates the rocket’s universal stage adapter from its upper stage. The assembly will allow for the deployment of cargo and secondary payloads from the SLS once it rises into orbit.

Systima won the contract for the separation joint system this month from Dynetics, an Alabama-based company that’s the prime contractor for the universal stage adapter. The value of Systima’s contract is undisclosed, but it’s part of NASA’s $221.7 million contract with Dynetics.

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NASA plays it safe for SLS rocket’s first flight

SLS launch
An artist’s view shows NASA’s Space Launch System launching an Orion capsule. (NASA Illustration)

NASA has broken the news to the White House and the world that speeding up the first crewed flight of its exploration launch system wouldn’t be worth the added cost and risk.

That means the first launch of NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System will fly without astronauts, as originally planned. And it will fly later than planned: NASA officials said today that liftoff will have to be delayed to 2019, although it’s too early to be more precise about the time frame.

The determination comes after weeks of discussions focusing on whether the flight plan for what’s known as Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1, could be tweaked to put people on board. Such a scenario would give the White House more to celebrate in President Donald Trump’s first term.

“We decided that while it’s technically feasible … the baseline plan that we had in place was the best way for us to go,” Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, told reporters today during a teleconference.

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