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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

It’s a make-or-break moment for NASA’s next mega-rocket: the Space Launch System.

Why it matters: The rocket — about 10 years in development and billions of dollars over budget — is expected to launch for the first time this year. Its success is key for NASA’s plans to bring people and payloads to deep space destinations like the Moon.

  • “This is the year the SLS has to show that it can work,” the Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier told me. “It had better do something. It’s been 10 years now.”

Driving the news: NASA is expected to stage what will be one of the biggest tests of the SLS yet on January 16.

  • That test will see the four engines of the huge rocket's core stage fire in unison without taking flight.
  • The rocket will light up for as many as eight minutes in order to see how the booster might behave during a real launch.

What's next: The SLS is expected to launch to space for the first time in November 2021, sending an uncrewed Orion capsule around the Moon and back to Earth.

But but, but ... whether that happens on time remains to be seen.

  • There isn't much margin in the schedule for possible delays and fixes that may come about as a result of the test firing or other issues, according to a Government Accountability Office report published last month.
  • If the first flight of the SLS and Orion is delayed, it could have a cascade effect on NASA's future Moon missions, including the planned 2024 crewed lunar landing, William Russell, one of the authors of the GAO report, told me.

Context: Congress directed NASA to build the SLS in 2010.

  • Today there are commercial space companies — including Blue Origin and SpaceX — working to develop rockets that could launch astronauts and payloads to the Moon and beyond for cheaper than the cost of an SLS.
  • Some have suggested NASA should buy a ride to the Moon aboard a commercial rocket instead of the SLS, at least at first.

The other side: Proponents of the SLS program say that even with these commercial heavy lift rockets expected to come online, NASA still needs its own launcher in order to fulfill its unique needs as an exploration agency.

  • The entire system — including SLS and Orion — are built to work together, so swapping in some other kind of rocket isn't practical at this phase in development, Dreier said.
  • The SLS program has also brought much-needed jobs back to NASA and the contractors — Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Northrop Grumman — responsible for building and testing the rocket.

The bottom line: NASA's future deep space exploration plans depend on the SLS succeeding — and soon.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a new date for the SLS test. NASA is now targeting January 16 instead of January 17.

Go deeper

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Jan 26, 2021 - Science

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The Moon rock now in the Oval Office. Photo: NASA

President Joe Biden hasn't revealed much about his space policy priorities yet, but space fans can take heart that space is on his mind, thanks to an Apollo Moon rock that now decorates the Oval Office.

Why it matters: The Moon rock — loaned to the White House by NASA — is on display "in symbolic recognition of earlier generations’ ambitions and accomplishments, and support for America’s current Moon to Mars exploration approach," according to a statement from NASA.

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Jan 26, 2021 - Science

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An American entrepreneur, Canadian investor and Israeli investor, along with a former NASA astronaut, are set to make up the first fully private mission to the International Space Station.

Why it matters: The flight — expected to launch in January 2022 — represents part of NASA's bid to create an economy in low-Earth orbit supported by private companies.

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Investment in the space industry overcame the pandemic's headwinds in 2020

A SpaceX launch in 2020. Photo: SpaceX

Investment in the space industry continued to grow in the last quarter of 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report from Space Capital.

Why it matters: The space industry turned out to be far more robust in the face of the pandemic than many experts were initially expecting.