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NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine testifiies before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on March 13. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Wednesday that NASA is considering launching the first mission of its Orion crew capsule in 2020 using commercial rockets rather than the agency's Space Launch System (SLS). The mission, which won't carry crew, will test the capsule in deep space during its three weeks around the moon.

Why it matters: The admission that the long-delayed SLS may not be ready in time to launch the first Orion mission in 2020 comes in the wake of development delays and cost overruns of what would be NASA's most powerful rocket ever developed. It also delivers a blow to Boeing, which is one of the main contractors for the SLS, and a potential boost to another private sector launch company, like United Launch Alliance or Elon Musk's SpaceX.

Details: NASA has been planning to conduct its first Orion mission, known as Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1, in 2020, but problems with the development of its most powerful rocket ever designed have put that timeline in doubt, Bridenstine said.

  • Bridenstine said NASA is considering using two commercial rocket launches to send Orion into orbit around the moon. The first is aimed at getting the capsule and its supporting European Service Module into low Earth orbit, while the second aims to deliver a second-stage rocket that would power the spacecraft away from our home planet.
  • NASA first signaled that it might not be fully committed to the SLS in its budget proposal, released Monday, which puts forward a $375 million cut to the SLS for a total funding of about $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2020.
  • The budget, which Congress must approve, recommends delaying a planned upgrade to the SLS that would make it even more powerful.

"SLS is struggling to meet its schedule," Bridenstine said. "I think we as an agency need to stick to our commitments. Sir, if we tell you, and others, that we’re going to launch in June of 2020 around the Moon, which is what EM-1 is, I think we should launch around the Moon in June of 2020. And I think it can be done."

  • "We need to consider, as an agency, all options to accomplish that objective," Bridenstine said. "Some of those options would include launching the Orion crew capsule and the European Service Module on a commercial rocket."

Yes, but: Making a commercial launch of the Orion capsule and its supporting European Service Module work would require adding docking capability to Orion, since it has been designed to launch from the more powerful SLS, which would not require docking in low Earth orbit.

The bottom line: Bridenstine says the decision on whether to use a commercial provider to launch Orion will be made in the next few weeks. He nonetheless endorsed the SLS' continued development for future missions.

Go deeper

NRA files for bankruptcy, says it will reincorporate in Texas

Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association (NRA) speaks during CPAC in 2016. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The National Rifle Association said Friday it has filed for voluntary bankruptcy as part of a restructuring plan.

Driving the news: The gun rights group said it would reincorporate in Texas, calling New York, where it is currently registered, a "toxic political environment." Last year, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit to dissolve the NRA, alleging the group committed fraud by diverting roughly $64 million in charitable donations over three years to support reckless spending by its executives.

38 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Biden: "We will manage the hell out of" vaccine distribution

Joe Biden. Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden promised to invoke the Defense Production Act to increase vaccine manufacturing, as he outlined a five-point plan to administer 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations in the first months of his presidency.

Why it matters: With the Center for Disease Control and Prevention warning of a more contagious variant of the coronavirus, Biden is trying to establish how he’ll approach the pandemic differently than President Trump.

A new Washington

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Image

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Friday that the city should expect a "new normal" for security — even after President-elect Biden's inauguration.

The state of play: Inaugurations are usually a point of celebration in D.C., but over 20,000 troops are now patrolling Washington streets in an unprecedented preparation for Biden's swearing-in on Jan. 20.