A NASA official hinted that the first launch of the powerful SLS (Space Launch System) might be delayed and be tentatively set in the middle of a 2021 date instead of the proposed 2020 date.
As of the moment, NASA has stopped providing scheduling updates until it names a new associate administrator of human spaceflight operations, agency spokesman Matthew Rydin said.
However, Ken Bowersox, the acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA, said in a conference on October 10 that SLS is likely to face more delays due to the rigorous testing and installation of the next-generation rocket launcher.
Notably, the first launch of the SLS rocket is part of NASA’s ambitious Artemis program, which aims to send the first woman and the next man to the lunar surface.
Artemis I, the first SLS launch codename, today remains to be set on a late 2020 date. That date, though, assumes that everything will go exactly as planned for the remainder of the vehicle’s development and testing. Bowersox, on the other hand, implies that things will not go accordingly.
“The schedule that we’re managing to is very, very aggressive,” said Bowersox, during a presentation at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS).
That same schedule calls for finishing the core stage of the vehicle at the end of this year and shipping it to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for a static-fire test known as the Green Run. “In the best case, it’s going to be five or six months” of testing there, he said.
Earlier last month, NASA said that the development of the SLS rocket engine section, the lowest portion of the massive core stage for NASA’s rocket, is assembled and ready to be mated to the rest of the rocket’s core stage, to which it did days after the announcement.
On October 10’s conference, however, Bowersox added that there are “risks” to that timeline due to both technical issues, such as the amount of time needed to refurbish the stage after the test, as well as weather that can delay work on the outdoors test stand.
After the Green Run, the stage would be shipped to the Kennedy Space Center for integration with its two solid rocket boosters, upper stage, and the Orion spacecraft that will perform an uncrewed test flight in cislunar space.
“We have a chance to actually have a rocket on the pad and launch by the end of next year,” he said. “But when you start throwing all those different uncertainties, it’s more likely that we will move out into 2021.”
“Sometime late next year, middle of the year after,” he said, “the first uncrewed Orion will be launched out around the moon,” hinting at a 2021 date rather than late 2020.
On the topic of formally setting a date for the SLS Artemis I launch, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine hinted that the search for a new associate administrator might soon end, thus the announcement to be made. “We will come to a point where we settle on a name, but we’re not there yet,” he said. “That announcement is not months away; it’s weeks away.”
Meanwhile, Bowersox said he was interested in taking the associate administrator position permanently. “If I weren’t interested in the job, I wouldn’t still be here as the acting” associate administrator, he said. “I’d be happy to serve in the position.”