NASA’s Space Launch System On The Ropes

The first test flight of the Space Launch System, called EM-1, has recently been delayed further down the calendar to June of 2020 and maybe even 2021.

I’ve already pointed out the looming danger that delays pose to that program. As it falls further down the calendar it will encounter competition from other launch systems that cost far less to fly. I’m thinking specifically of SpaceX’s upcoming Big Falcon Rocket, and to a lesser extent Falcon Heavy, but there might also be others that show up at some point along the way as well.

OK…so…I have a rhetorical question…

What good are the lessons learned from EM-1 if it launches only months before EM-2? Next question…How close does the EM-1 mission have to get to the EM-2 mission before EM-2 gets pushed down the schedule with it?

We used to think it was idiotic that EM-2 followed EM-1 by a whole whoppin’ five years! Boy has that stopped being an issue! It is now nearing just one. It seems to take more than a year to build an SLS rocket, so if they find a problem in the EM-1 test mission that they want to fix in future rockets like the one that will fly EM-2…well, you get the picture.


As things currently stand, the second component of NASA’s Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) belongs to the European Space Agency. They call it the “European System Providing Refueling Infrastructure and Telecommunications” (ESPRIT) and it will fly in 2022, if it is ready on time, and will likely launch on a Falcon Heavy. That is the same year as EM-2…the SLS flight on which the “Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage” (ICPS) for LOP-G is currently scheduled to launch. Soon after that, in 2023, comes the Europa Clipper mission…an orbiter and lander for a Jupiter moon (if that mission survives budget cuts and doesn’t get moved to Falcon Heavy so it can launch sooner and cheaper). About once every year after that, starting in 2024, begins a series of LOP-G construction and mission launches ending in a two-year long Mars orbit mission sometime after 2030. They intend to fly more Interplanetary missions on this reusable spacecraft after that.

As you can see, there is no room for any more development delays. NASA, Russia, ESA, Japan, Canada, and perhaps even China will be committed to their own flight and assembly mission schedules related to LOP-G. BFR will be available somewhere in there to jump in, maybe at two full decimal places cheaper, and take over if any SLS flight becomes unable to step-up. Then folks will ask SLS, “What do we even need you for?”

Even if BFR has not yet begun regular flights by 2022 (I don’t think it will), Falcon Heavy will still be flying. In addition to ESA and the ESPRIT module, Japan’s space agency (JAXA) wants to fly their space station resupply ship, HTV-X, to LOP-G on Falcon Heavy. Of course, all of that relies on a reliable LOP-G development, flight, and operation schedule, which itself currently relies on a reliable SLS flight schedule.

Falcon Heavy will also be certified by both NASA and the U.S. military and might have even flown more missions than ULA’s Delta Heavy by then. It lifts twice as much payload than Delta Heavy for roughly half the price. However, neither it nor Delta Heavy are big enough around to fly NASA’s planned LOP-G construction modules, but BFR will be.


So, Falcon Heavy, if it flies well between now and then, will be considered an acceptable option for uncrewed NASA missions. It will likely fly the ESPRIT to lunar orbit for ESA. Falcon 9 will fly at least one Lunar XPrize package to the Moon’s surface. BFR will probably run one or more test flights to prepare to send a Japanese billionaire with 7 artists on a loop around the Moon. All this likely will fly in 2022, the same year that SLS flies EM-2, with Orion and four NASA astronauts…for more cost than all the rest of the above. If ANY further schedule slippage pushes EM-2 into 2023 with all these other options available someone might just say why even bother with SLS.

Indeed, SLS is indeed on the ropes.



~ by Bill Housley on October 8, 2018.

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