Rough week for SLS. The NASA 2020 budget request suggested shifting Europa Clipper and Lunar Gateway elements away from SLS and onto commercial launch vehicles.
Today, in front of the Senate, Administrator Bridenstine suggested keeping EM-1 on track for 2020 by launching the mission via two commercial launch vehicles—one for Orion and its service module, and another for an upper stage to send the stack around the Moon.
With that, within the span of 3 days, NASA has officially, publicly stated that they want all previously-SLS-only flights flown on commercial vehicles. This is a massive shift, and as I said yesterday, one that will probably be rejected by Congress. But it’s a massive, noteworthy shift, nonetheless.
A great little insight from Eric Berger of Ars Technica:
Bridenstine was careful to reiterate on Wednesday that NASA remains committed to the SLS rocket for its long-term exploration plans. But the reality is that if NASA can perform its first Exploration Mission on private rockets, future missions with crew could also be sent to the Moon in a similar manner on commercial rockets. Private rockets also could launch elements of the agency's Lunar Gateway and landers, the agency recently acknowledged.
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.