NASA is not shifting away from the Space Launch System (SLS) that will transport the next generation of American astronauts to the Moon, Adminstrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed May 5, just days after contractor Boeing [BA] and the agency completed a key avionics review of the new shuttle.
The Space Launch System is a key component of NASA’s Artemis program to land the next man and first woman on the Moon by 2024. The SLS rocket will transport future astronauts to the Moon within the Orion crew module, being built by Lockheed Martin [LMT] and the European service module built by Airbus Defence and Space.
“There’s only one vehicle that can launch that, and that’s the SLS,” Bridenstine said in a teleconference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Once the crew is in lunar orbit, astronauts will transfer into a lunar landing system currently in development. NASA last week awarded contracts to three industry contractors – Space X, Dynetics [LDOS] and a Blue Origin-led team that includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman [NOC] and Draper – that are each developing a unique method to land on the moon and will launch on separate rockets.
“We want to work with those companies to come up with the optimum solution over the next 10 months,” Bridenstine said.
The SLS program has suffered ballooning costs and schedule delays since the contract was awarded in 2011, and progress has been most recently impeded by pauses in operation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Boeing announced April 30 that the SLS team had recently completed the final stage controller readiness review with NASA, which will ensure that the program is ready to resume testing of the first SLS core stage once NASA reopens the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. This sets the stage for the first phase of the Green Run test, which will be the first top-to-bottom integrated testing of the stage’s systems prior to its maiden flight, per NASA. The agency recently told SpaceFlight Now that the inaugural test flight has been delayed to November 2021.
On May 1, NASA awarded a contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne [AJRD] to build 18 SLS RS-25 rocket engines to support the Artemis mission. That follow-on contract is worth $1.79 billion and brings the total contract award up to nearly $3.5 billion. The initial contract awarded in 2015 was to recertify and produce six new RS-25 engines; the modification now provides for a total of 24 engines to support up to six additional SLS flights, per the agency.
NASA is determined to get U.S. astronauts back on the Moon by 2024, Bridenstine reasserted Tuesday. This is in part to reduce the risk of politics getting in way of the schedule, and to develop a sustained campaign of exploration on the lunar surface by 2028, he noted.
“These are the two things we are trying to achieve with these human landing systems,” he said. “As far as we can see at this point, our astronauts are going to launch on the Orion crew capsule.”