NASA's several-billion-dollar Space Launch System (SLS) is on thin ice. The culprit: the enticingly low-cost and high-performance rockets of its private industry competitors.
At a Senate hearing today, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested that NASA might use a commercial rocket to boost its Orion crew capsule around the Moon in 2020.
"We need to consider, as an agency, all options to accomplish that objective," Bridenstine said of the first launch of its Orion crew capsule. "We're talking about a rocket that's taller than the Statue of Liberty with a fairing that can put really big objects into space — and into deep space."
NASA's SLS was supposed to use a massive two-stage rocket design to launch astronauts towards the Moon and even Mars. But when that will happen is hard to say.
"SLS is failing to meet its schedule," Bridenstine said during the hearing.
NASA initially signed a contract with Boeing to build those two stages in 2012. The first planned uncrewed test flight was scheduled for December 2017. Next time window: June 2020 — but even that date is likely to change.
And that's not to mention the fact that the SLS is grossly over budget. Conservative 2017 estimates pegged the cost for each launch at $1.5 to $2.5 billion. Estimates for the total authorized budget of the SLS is $46 billion since its conception, according to Ars Technica.
To put that into perspective: the White House budget proposal for all of NASA's operations in 2020 is just $21 billion.
Ditching the SLS altogether would be a huge admission of failure, but Bridenstine isn't about to give up on NASA.
“The Space Launch System, SLS, the largest rocket that’s ever been built in American history, is a critical piece of what the United States of America needs to build,” Bridenstine said during the hearing.
READ MORE: NASA considers using a commercial rocket for upcoming trip around the Moon [The Verge]
More on the SLS: How Does NASA’s New Mega-Rocket Compare to the Falcon Heavy?