NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has opened the possibility of another partnership between the U.S. space agency and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
On Wednesday, March 13, Bridenstine spoke in front of a Senate committee and discussed the possibility that they might scrap current plans to use the space agency’s own Space Launch System, or SLS, to launch the Orion crew capsule on a trip around the moon. He said that the multibillion-dollar rocket, which has been in development for the past decade will not be ready for the scheduled June 2020 launch.
“I think we should launch around the moon in June of 2020, and I think it can be done,” he stated. “Some of those options would include launching the Orion crew capsule and the European service module on a commercial rocket.”
Bridenstine mentioned the “amazing capability that exists right now” in the United States. While he did not mention a specific company, there are currently only two options that fit the requirements of the project: SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.
The United Launch Alliance, or ULA, is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Its rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, launched the first test flight for the Orion program in 2014
However, the Delta IV Heavy comes with a steep price, which is more than $350 million per launch. Then there is the question of whether ULA has a rocket ready. The company needs at least two to three years from the order before a rocket is ready to launch.
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is not just cheaper at $150 million per launch, it also has a quick turnaround. In the past two years, Musk’s company made the most rocket launches in the United States.
“If speed is of the utmost importance, then they may be willing to pay more than SpaceX’s stated price,” stated Chad Anderson, CEO of Space Angels, an investment firm. “SpaceX is clearly the front-runner given this time frame.”
Bridenstine said that the space agency will make a decision in the next couple of weeks.
The launch planned next year was supposed to be the maiden flight of the SLS rocket, which is built primarily by Boeing. It will become the most powerful rocket available when it is finally finished.
However, the construction of the rocket has been beset with technical challenges and budget overruns. Last year, NASA’s inspector general wrote a scathing report that has been critical of Boeing, citing management and technical issues stemming from the company’s poor performance.