NASA is building a giant rocket ship to return astronauts to the moon and, finally, transport the first crew to and from Mars.
But agency leaders have considered the retirement of the Space Launch System (SLS), because government rockets that soared and did not fly were called, and the Orion space capsule that would rise upwards.
NASA anticipates the emergence of two more reusable and more affordable rockets created by private aerospace companies.
Those systems are Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), which is being built by Elon Musk's SpaceX; and New Glenn, the launcher built by Blue Origin Jeff Bezos.
Read more: Elon Musk and SpaceX are building monster rockets for Mars. This is how big it is compared to 20 known objects.
"I think our view is that if commercial capabilities are online, we will eventually retire the government system, and only move to the capacity to launch purchases on them [rockets], "Stephen Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator, told Business Insider at The Economist Space Summit on November 1.
However, NASA may soon find itself in a strange position, because two private launch systems can beat the SLS back to the moon – and perhaps the first person to send people to Mars.
Super big struggle with SLS
Space Launch Systems are often called super heavy rockets. This means that it is designed to increase the load by more than 55 tons (approximately the mass of battle tanks) to low-Earth orbit.
"We need one [super-]heavy launch capability, "Jurczyk said." Without it, we will not have the architecture and implementation that is safe, reliable, and affordable for human exploration. "
Several SLS iterations are planned during the 2020s, and the first is called Blok 1. This rocket is expected to stand around 322 meters and is capable of lifting around 70 tons of spacecraft hardware and supplies into orbit.
NASA hopes to test the first Block 1 rocket launch in June 2020 in a flight called the Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). This mission aims to prove that SLS is safe and reliable by sending Orion spacecraft that are not circled to the moon and back to Earth.
A Explored Mission-2 (EM-2) manned will follow a few years later.
But so far NASA has spent around $ 11.9 billion for SLS, and the agency is projected to need $ 4-5 billion more than planned in 2021. Thus, the launch date scheduled for EM-1 in June 2020 is around 2 , 5 years behind the schedule.
An internal audit of the NASA program found that preventable accidents, contract management problems, and other performance issues related to Boeing, the main contractor, were very responsible for cost overruns and delays.
These problems have some experts estimate an average cost of $ 5 billion per SLS launch, which is a disposable rocket. Presumably, SpaceX or Blue Origin can be launched at a fraction of that price because their upcoming vehicles can be reused.
If more hiccups come with the SLS program, NASA might also watch SpaceX defeat the agency to the moon with crew missions. That's because Musk, the founder of the company, is pursuing an aggressive timeline to explore the solar system with a BFR.
How SpaceX can beat NASA back to the moon
SpaceX employees have worked hard under the hood in Los Angeles to build the top of the system, called the Big Falcon Spaceship.
Musk and Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said that the spacecraft could do a short launch called "hop" immediately after 2019.
Musk also plans to modify the stage for his Falcon 9 rocket to become a "mini-BFR ship" to test and refine some of the more challenging aspects of the design of a fully reusable spacecraft. One obstacle: test the heat shield that survives re-entering heat into the Earth's atmosphere (to protect the crew and allow the spacecraft to be triggered and launched again).
In 2020 or 2021, he aims to launch a fully integrated BFR version – Big Falcon Booster with the Big Falcon Spaceship above – to orbit around the Earth. (Around the same time, Blue Origin plans to use New Glenn, the main part that can land back on Earth and be reused, to deliver landers to the surface of the moon in search of ice water.)
If the first SpaceX orbitals launch and then unmanned missions fly without explosions or other incidents, the company intends to launch Japanese billionaires and a group of artists around the month in 2023.
It remains to be seen how the space agency will react to such an achievement, which is basically a creative manifestation of the Apollo 8 mission in 1968. In fact, 2023 was the same year NASA planned to launch EM-2 around the moon.
It's also not known what NASA will do if SpaceX launches the first unmanned mission to Mars with BFRs in 2022, followed by the first crew mission to the red planet in 2024. That was several years before when the space agency hoped to land people on the moon. , and maybe a decade earlier than NASA will try the manned Mars landing.
"We haven't really involved SpaceX about how we worked together on the BFR, and finally got to the Mars mission – however," Jurczyk said of NASA's leadership. "My guess is that it came."
US space agency without American spacecraft
At present, Jurczyk says, he and others in the leadership of the space agency are focusing on launching tests for the Commercial Crew Program, a competition for private companies to build and launch American-made spacecraft.
The main objective of the Commercial Crew is to revive the capabilities of the US spaceflight that were lost when the company retired the space shuttle in 2011. (Since then, NASA has only relied on Russia to direct its astronauts to and from the International Space Station for $ 150 billion. )
Boeing and SpaceX have each designed and built seven space capsules, which are approaching approval for the launch of a test that is not released and knocked. SpaceX currently wants to fly first with its Crew Dragon ship.
"Their first untrained flight test, now, is scheduled for January, followed by, not a few months later, maybe in the spring, testing their first flight to the space station," Jurczyk said.
Read more: Boeing may have used a lobby firm to instill scathing opinions about SpaceX at US news outlets. At stake are billions of dollars in NASA contracts.
After Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Starliner ships prove that they can launch safely and reliably, the agency leadership will increasingly debate the future of space with New Glenn's BFR and Blue Origin.
"How we get involved will depend very much on the speed at which the system and capabilities develop," Jurczyk said.
The key to NASA is to get a kind of super-heavy lifting capability, as soon as possible.
"Right now we are seeing a way to do this through SLS, because we have the start and use of this legacy technology and system," he said, referring to the fact that SLS will use shuttle engines and other wells. understood hardware.
"That's the type where we are," Jurczyk added. "We know we need such BFRs – and anything that evolves from New Glenn – heavy lifting capabilities if we are going to do human exploration of the solar system. We don't think other approaches will be safe, affordable and reliable."