A Shocking Space Announcement

Bridenstine announced today that he wants to send Orion on EM-1 in 2020, on a commercial rocket, including orbital fueling. I haven’t read Eric’s take yet, but I’m sure I’ll have my own.

[Update a while later]

[Update a few minutes later]

Thoughts from Anthony Colangelo:

On-orbit assembly was always said to be too complicated and risky to consider, and that is why SLS reigned supreme—because it has the ability to launch missions alone. But if EM-1 is flown on commercial vehicles, and the capability to assemble this type of mission on-orbit is proven, that’s as dead as SLS could ever be.

Almost 10 years ago, SLS was born out of the ashes of a program that would fly this type of mission in the same way—crew flown on Ares I, an upper stage flown on Ares V.

It’s ironic—and fitting—that it might die in the same way it was born.

It will have taken far too long.

[Late-morning update]

[Update a few minutes later]

Per some comments:

[Thursday-morning update]

Another shocking development! OK, not really. SLS defenders defend SLS.

[Update mid-morning]

Eric Berger has more details. Yes, it’s possible that having to use two Delta IVs will be the price that NASA has to pay to get Shelby’s blessing for this, though that would make it a lot tougher to pull off. They’ve never launched two of those in such a small timeframe. Maybe Delta IV plus Atlas V.

[Update late morning]

Here‘s Marina Koren’s current take.

[Noon update]

A message from Bridenstine to the NASA workforce:

Yesterday, I was asked by Congress about the schedule slip of the Space Launch System and plans to get NASA back on track. I mentioned that we are exploring the possibility of launching Orion and the European Service Module to low-Earth orbit on an existing heavy-lift rocket, then using a boost from another existing vehicle for Trans Lunar Injection. Our goal would be to test Orion in lunar orbit in 2020 and free up the first SLS for the launch of habitation or other hardware in 2021. This would get us back on schedule for a crewed lunar orbital mission in 2022 with the added bonus of a lunar destination for our astronauts.

We are studying this approach to accelerate our lunar efforts. The review will take no longer than two weeks and the results will be made available. Please know that NASA is committed to building and flying the SLS for the following reasons:

  1. Launching two heavy-lift rockets to get Orion to the Moon is not optimum or sustainable.
  2. Docking crewed vehicles in Earth orbit to get to the Moon adds complexity and risk that is undesirable.
    SLS mitigates these challenges and allows crew and payloads to get to the Moon, and eventually to Mars, safer and more efficiently than any temporary solution used to get back on track.

  3. I believe in the strength of our workforce and our ability to utilize every tool available to achieve our objectives. Our goal is to get to the Moon sustainably and on to Mars. With your focused efforts, and unmatched talent, the possibility of achieving this objective is real.

Ad astra,

Jim Bridenstine

This is really a message to Dick Shelby. He has to continue to pay lip service, even though he knows it’s nonsense.

32 thoughts on “A Shocking Space Announcement”

  1. I knew Pence was getting impatient with SLS delays, but…wow.

    Rand, could ULA throw together a Delta IV Heavy that quickly? Late 2020 is not all *that* far away in ULA time. Those launches are planned years in advance, and they already have two DIVH launches slated for next year as it is.

      1. Falcon Heavy is obviously the easy solution here – if NASA ordered one today, no one doubts Hawthorne could deliver one by next summer. You’d have to work out all the integration, look at the aerodynamics of the wide SM skirt, but…

        But I mention Delta IV Heavy because it is the only other American heavy lifter that could put an Orion CSM in orbit – and politically, we all know it will be an easier lift for NASA.

        Anyway, Eric Berger answered my question: In 2015, Tory Bruno testified to Congress that it normally takes 36 months of lead time to get a Delta IV Heavy launch. So unless they steal one from one of next year’s NRO launches (hah!), Falcon Heavy may really be their only option for a 2020 launch of an Orion.

    1. From what I’ve read over on Ars Technica, no. ULA has previously stated that DIVH needed a minimum of 30 months lead-time, and that was before the DOD bought up the slots remaining before ULA switches over the Vulcan production. YMMV on that, of course.

  2. This is really great news that could allow space exploration to no longer be held up by an antiquated view that only a government can perform rocket science.

  3. If Brindlestein pulls this off, he will be the greatest admin since Payne. Talk about blows against the empire.

    1. If you mean Thomas Paine, I would argue that he was a disaster as an administrator (which is why he lasted less than two years).

      But if you want to say Jim Webb, I think you’re aiming at the right target.

  4. If they can do this unmanned, then doing it manned would be as easy as launching a crew up on a Dragon to dock with Orion in orbit. Gets around that pesky man rating thing.

    I assume Delta to launch the upper as you would want to validate ICPS for man rating requirements on EM-1and it is already able to interface with the Delta.

    1. And even with the multiple launches, it would still be cheaper than an SLS launch. They could even add a couple more launches to spend more money if they wanted.

    1. Dragon doesn’t have life support or power for a circumlunar (let alone lunar orbit) mission. So you’d have to fix that. Not impossible, but that would be one obstacle to overcome.

      Dragon also does not have quite as much radiation shielding or micrometeorite protection as Orion. Answering that probably requires a reassessment of risk (and I know how Rand would answer this!!).

      (These difficulties also apply to Starliner, BTW, but likewise, I presume they are fixable.)

      On the upside, the Dragon heat shield is already rated for lunar return speeds.

      But yes, Orion looks increasingly vulnerable, if admittedly not *quite* as vulnerable as SLS does now.

  5. It looks as if the unholy alliance of SLS and Orion is starting to fall apart. If they don’t hang together, they will hang separately. Maybe NASA can then finally begin to spend its budget a bit more productively.

    1. I don’t think it works that way. I believe that NASA doesn’t get to keep the money on a canceled project and use it for other things unless Congress agrees. It’s not like NASA is given a pot of money and told “go do stuff”.

  6. If separate launch and in-orbit assembly is so difficult, I guess there isn’t much chance we’ll ever build an International Space Station.

  7. Would SpaceX even be interested in dealing with NASA on integrating Orion on to a FH?
    On a money up front, take it or leave it price and “we’ll TELL you what we did after the launch” basis, maybe.
    I think SpaceX has other fish to fry.

  8. Well, good riddance SLS.

    I still think the Orion capsule is a useless bloated pig of a capsule though. Just add an orbital module to a smaller capsule.

  9. I think the SpaceX option is unlikely to happen because: politics (Senate, OldSpace, Deep State, take your pick[s]). I think the biggest problem would be the automated rendezvous & docking software. Right now, all the US has is what’s running Dragon 2. Once Starliner OFT has flown, its software will probably be more easily adaptable to Orion/DIVUS for obvious reasons. That leaves the problem of getting two Delta IV Heavies for Orion and DIVUS+IDA. I don’t know if an Atlas V 552 launching a two-engine Centaur+IDA could do the job for the TLI stage. But I do think the “commercial” solution would have to be non-SpaceX for it to be allowed, since it involves the same contractors as SLS.

    1. Politically, I don’t think NASA could use SpaceX for both launches. But I think they could use them for one of them.

  10. Oh, the other alternative: Launch Orion and DIVUS+IDA on Delta IV Heavies, then send up a Soyuz to rendezvous with the Orion. A US pilot would spacewalk to the Orion, get in, manually dock it with DIVUS, then spacewalk back to the Soyuz. Oh, Look! International Cooperation! Because Soyuz has an airlock!

  11. My insight is that since the EM-1 mission isn’t crewed, the dimensions of the mission’s Orion capsule doesn’t matter. So make a scaled down Orion, sized for Peter Dinklage, and launch that on a Falcon Heavy without any required orbital rendezvous.

    They could still get almost all the systems checked out, and when it comes time to fly EM-2 and they’re still pretending the SLS isn’t eating their entire budget, they can just hire Peter Dinklage to fly it in the already proven piece of hardware.

  12. I don’t know that we aren’t underestimating the technical difficulties of including Falcon Heavy in this, as well as the political ones. Only Delta IV Heavy can launch a fully fuelled DIVUS (until SLS comes along). It’s only the only LV that’s been adapted to launch Orion CSM (meaning there’s a known path to it). There’d be a lot of never done before work adapting FH to carry Orion CSM. I don’t know how much work would be required to turn the FH upper stage into a crewed TLI stage. Orion is expecting to ride on a DIVUS (renamed IUS), so that’s the shortest technical path. ULA has suggested in can have two Delta IV Heavies by next summer. I’m sorry I don’t have a link for that.

      1. That’s a good point and a good question. Since it’s uncrewed, solar powered, and uses storable fuels, the answer should be in the weeks to months range. Given suffienct TLI delta-V, Orion could be launched to ISS orbit and stored there until the TLI stage showed up on orbit. What’s the minimum turnaround time for the Delta IV vertical assembly building and pad? If it’s weeks, then it’s not a problem for EM-1. Not that any of it is likely to happen.

      2. This is one of those events where it would have been nice if SpaceX had that Raptor upper stage for Falcon Heavy that the DoD supposedly financed them to do.

        The current Falcon Heavy upper stage is just too low performance for deep space missions.

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