Mar 13, 2019

In major shift, NASA may use commercial rockets for next moon mission

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.

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In photos: Life in the era of coronavirus across the U.S.

Lauryn Morley, a lower school substitute teacher for the Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda, Maryland, works from her home in Arlington, Virginia. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

The number of novel coronavirus cases in the U.S. has grown from one on Jan. 21 to over 312,000 by early Sunday, per Johns Hopkins.

The big picture: Roughly 3/4 of the American population is on lockdown. From practicing social distancing to the shutdown of non-essential businesses, here's how Americans are coping with the massive upheaval the outbreak has brought, in photos.

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of midnight ET: 1,202,827 — Total deaths: 64,771 — Total recoveries: 246,886Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of midnight ET: 312,076 — Total deaths: 8,496 — Total recoveries: 14,997Map.
  3. Public health latest: CDC launches national trackers and recommends face coverings in public. Federal government will cover costs of COVID-19 treatment for uninsured. The virus is hitting poor, minority communities harder and upending childbirth.
  4. 2020 latest: "We have no contingency plan," Trump said on the 2020 Republican National Convention. "We're having the convention at the end of August."
  5. Business updates: Restaurants step up for health care workers. Employees are pressuring companies to provide protections during coronavirus.
  6. Oil latest: Monday meeting among oil-producing countries to discuss supply curbs is reportedly being delayed amid tensions between Saudi Arabia and Russia.
  7. Education update: Many college-age students won't get coronavirus relief checks.
  8. 1 🏀 thing: The WNBA postpones start of training camps and season.
  9. What should I do? Pets, moving and personal health. Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  10. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

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World coronavirus updates: Confirmed cases top 1.2 million

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens and confirmed plus presumptive cases from the CDC

The number of novel coronavirus cases surpassed 1.2 million worldwide Saturday night, as Spain overtook Italy as the country with the most infections outside the U.S. The global death toll has surpassed 64,700, per Johns Hopkins data.

The latest: The United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth II will speak in a televised address on the coronavirus Sunday of the "disruption that has brought grief to some, financial difficulties to many, and enormous changes to the daily lives of us all," per the BBC. The U.K. death toll rose 708 to 4,313 on Saturday — the fourth highest in the world.

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