This week NASA announced that they had completed the study requested by the Trump administration who had requested that they look into add crew to the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS). NASA concluded that it would cost an additional $600-900 million to do this and would delay the first flight until sometime in 2020. Due to this, the White House decided to leave the EM-1 mission as an uncrewed mission.
During the same press conference, NASA announced that the first launch of SLS would be delayed anyway due to several factors including damage sustained at the Michoud facility earlier in the year by a tornado that touched down. The launch which has already been delayed several times was previously set for November 2018 and will now be delayed to some time in 2019. However, at present, they haven’t determined an exact date and will be reporting back in the next couple of weeks.
During the Q&A time after it was determined that there would most likely be an impact on the EM-2 mission too as NASA needs approximately 33 months to modify the Launch Platform for the taller version of SLS due to the introduction of the Exploration Upper Stage which is approximately 40 feet taller than the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) flying on EM-1.
NASA has been developing a replacement for the Space Transport System (STS) since the 2005 NASA Authorization act and to date has only performed two launches related to the programs. NASA started work on the Constellation program which proposed the development of two rockets Ares I and V, a crew capsule Orion and several other components. This program ran until 2010, during which time they launched a single Ares 1 rocket. The Ares 1 basically consisted of a Solid Rocket Booster derived from the boosters used by the space shuttle. While this launch was successful nothing further came from the program.
In 2010 the program was canceled and morphed into the Space Launch System which proposed a single rocket capable of launching the Orion capsule beyond Low Earth Orbit. Since then there has only been one launch related to the program in 2014 when a Delta IV Heavy rocket carried the Orion capsule to orbit for a 4-hour 24-minute mission to test the vehicle’s heat shield. This was also a successful mission with the capsule splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
To date, NASA has spent approximately $9 billion on Constellation and another $15+ billion on SLS. From an investment north of $24 billion dollars only having two launches equals $12 billion each. With these additional delays more and more money is being poured into the program and while NASA recently announced plans for more missions for SLS there is no guarantee that the program won’t be canceled especially if there any further delays.