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That's why the NASA administrator made such a bold move on Wednesday

  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaks on Wednesday in the Senate Senate. His rocket fuel of choice is not LOX / kerosene, but Mountain Dew.
Enlarge / NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine Speaks at the Senate Hearing on Wednesday. His rocket fuel of choice is not LOX / kerosene, but Mountain Dew.


In a notable turnaround, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Wednesday that space agency is considering launching its first Orion mission on the Moon to launch commercial missiles instead of NASA's own Space Launch System. This has taken over virtually the entire aerospace world and represents a bold alternation of the status quo of Orion as America's spacecraft and the SLS as America's mighty rocket launching it.

The announcement raises a series of questions, and we state I have received some speculative but knowledgeable answers.

What happened?

During a hearing of the US Senate's Committee on Assessing America's Future in Space, Committee Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker opened when he asked Bridenstine about Exploration Mission-1 ongoing delays. The EM-1 test flight involves sending an unexploded Orion spacecraft on a three-week mission to orbit of lunar orbit, and is considered NASA's first step toward man's return to the moon. This mission was originally scheduled for the end of 2017, but has slipped several times, most recently to June 2020. It has also turned out that this date is no longer tenable.

"SLS has difficulty keeping to its schedule," Bridenstine replied to Wicker's question. "We now understand better how difficult this project is and it will be some time yet, I really want to be clear, I think we as an agency need to stick to our commitment, if we tell you and others, we will in June Starting around the moon in 2020, I think we should start around the moon in June 2020. And I think it can be done, as an agency we should consider all options to achieve that goal. "

The only other option at this time is the use of two large, privately developed heavy rockets instead of a single SLS amplifier. Although not as powerful as the SLS rocket, these commercial launch vehicles could enable the mission to proceed as planned.

How will this work?

A heavy rocket would launch a fully fueled upper school – most likely a Delta Cryogenic Second Stage or the Centaur Advanced, currently used by United Launch Alliance missiles. Then a second heavy rocket would put an Orion capsule and its service module into orbit, and these two vehicles would be anchored. The fueled upper school would then inject Orion into a lunar orbit.

Bridenstine did not designate missiles during the hearing, but it seems almost certain that at least one of them would be a Delta IV Heavy built by United Launch Alliance. NASA used this rocket to launch a version of the Orion probe in 2014 at a height of 3,600 km. Both United Launch Alliance and SpaceX – with their Falcon Heavy rocket – would be invited to the second start.

  A Delta IV Heavy rocket launches Orion's 2014 probe. "Src =" https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/EFT-1-980x666.jpg "width = "980" height = "666
Enlarge / A Delta IV heavy rocket launches the Orion probe in 2014.


Here's what it takes A breathtaking spectacle: Imagine a SpaceX Falcon Heavy on a launch pad, and a Delta IV Heavy from United Launch Alliance on a stop just a few miles away that starts in just a few hours. It would be the country's two largest rocket companies to come together for a historic mission, but it remains unclear whether both manufacturers are involved.

Is that hard?

Coordinating two launches and one orbital rendezvous would require some new technology and technology procedures, for sure. " I want to make it clear that we do not currently have the ability to put the Orion Crew Capsule in orbit with anything," said Bridenstine on Wednesday. "By June 2020, we have to do that."

However, NASA has done this before. In 1966, an Agena upper school was launched into space at Mission Gemini 10, followed by John Young and Michael Collins 100 minutes later in their Gemini capsule. The spaceship and Agena docked some 270 km above the earth, burning the Agena engine up to 760 km, the highest elevation above Earth's surface that humans had previously encountered.

  The Agena target docking vehicle is photographed by the spacecraft Gemini-10 during the rendezvous in space. They are 41 feet (about 12.5 meters) apart. "Src =" https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/gemini1-980x795.jpg "width =" 980 "height =" 795
Enlarge / The Agena target docking vehicle is photographed by spaceship Gemini-10 during a rendezvous in space. They are 41 feet (about 12.5 meters) apart.


Time is short, however. If NASA is to launch this mission by June 2020, it will have to identify the rockets and upper stages it will use, configure Orion to fly with a new rocket, write and test docking, and more. For an agency that moves relatively slowly, this requires a considerable amount of hurry.

What happens now?

Bridenstine said NASA engineers are already exploring how this is possible. He gave the answer a window of a few weeks, but in an e-mail to Johnson Space Center staff in Houston, center director Mark Geyer said a tentative response could come next week.

One big question is how The deep support for this plan is done within the agency. It is relatively easy for mid-level managers to kill this idea, as was previously the case (perhaps best known in the 1989 George W. Bush space exploration initiative, as in Mars Wars ). However, one source told Ars that a key figure in NASA headquarters, human spaceflight chief Bill Gerstenmaier, was on board with the plan. This is important because it means that the study should be conducted fairly.

Why was SLS controversial?

The short answer is that the missile was largely designed in the US Senate, so much so that it was abominably called the "Senate Starter System." The rocket had an enormous budget (more than $ 12 billion and more), and yet there were ongoing delays. And it uses old technology – a similar approach that Apollo reached the moon with a large, disposable rocket that is neither economical nor sustainable. In fact, the rocket uses excess space shuttle main engines, designed to be reused, but thrown away with SLS on every takeoff.

NASA's funding for the development of the SLS rocket prevented Congress from working on such forward-looking technologies as in-orbit refueling, fuel depots, space tractors, and other trifles that open up opportunities for a more cost-effective space transportation system and the use of smaller spacecraft reusable rockets as developed by SpaceX. (The longer story can be read here.)

Why did Bridenstine do that?

This was a brave move for a NASA administrator. If this mission succeeds and succeeds, it opens the way for commercial missiles to send people safely to the moon. In pro forma remarks, Bridenstine said the agency continues to use the space launch system for Orion crew missions. However, it was hard to see that the much more expensive SLS systems would be used in the future if the commercial launchers could do the same. This means that over the next ten or ten years, NASA could carry out its entire lunar program with commercial missiles that either exist now or will soon exist, such as Blue Origin's new Glenn vehicle. Finally, it also opens the possibility to start with the cost-saving technologies blocked by SLS, such as: Ground orbit and missions with multiple rockets with smaller missiles.

For that reason, it's really notable to make such a proposal in the Senate when the SLS missile has been so deeply institutionalized for nearly a decade. This was the moment of Bridenstine. He gave his statement at the witness table on Wednesday without comment. He has been saying all the time, he wants to run NASA and help the agency get back to the moon faster. On Wednesday he took the chance to act.

Several sources have told Ars that Vice President Mike Pence, who oversees US space policy, supports this approach. Pence has grown tired of the SLS delays and wants NASA to come up with a lunar program. A launch in 2020 would take place before the end of President Trump's first term and would mean that the government's speech on the return of the moon is not just rhetoric. It would show that the White House is serious.

How will the Congress react?

Even President Obama was not a big proponent of the SLS rocket – his government agreed to fund it in return for support from Boeing and SpaceX Commercial crew capsules that will soon bring astronauts to the International Space Station. Since its inception in 2011, the SLS program has therefore found its greatest support in the US Senate, notably Alabama's Richard Shelby, who now chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee. The Marshall Space Flight Center, which manages NASA's SLS program, is located in Alabama.

So far, Shelby is not on board with the plan proposed by Bridenstine. "I agree that the SLS start-up delay is unacceptable, but I firmly believe that SLS should launch the Orion," he said in a statement released to Ars.

  Vice President Mike Pence, center, gets a tour by Tory Bruno, chief executive of United Launch, at the Air Force Station of Cape Canaveral in Florida. "src =" https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/KSC-20180220-PH_KLS02_0055_large-980x653.jpg "width =" 980 "height =" 653
Enlarge / Vice President Mike Pence, center, receives a tour from Tory Bruno, chief executive of United Launch Alliance, at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.


Given However, due to Pence's support and the pledge of continued funding for SLS, it seems possible that Shelby may be persuaded not to disapprove of this plan or by him At least, both missiles must be built by United Launch Alliance, which assembles their boosters in Alabama. Regardless, this will be a crucial momentum if NASA engineers consider the plan feasible.

What do the rocket companies say about that? SpaceX has not responded to a request for participation in this mission. The Alliance sent Ars this statement:

ULA recognizes the unmatched capabilities of the NASA space-launch system for efficient architectures in Cislunar and Mars exploration. We are proud to have collaborated with The Boeing Company on the development of the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) for the SLS's first flight. Upon request, we may provide a description of the capabilities of our launch vehicles to meet NASA requirements, but recognize that they do not match SLS's extremely heavy buoyancy and mission capabilities for NASA's proposed exploration missions.

It is important to know that the United Launch Alliance is owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS rocket. The statement reflects this nuance.

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