Connect with us


NASA may retire its new mega-rocket for SpaceX, Blue Origin launchers



illustration space launch system sls rocket launching clouds nasa msfc
An artist’s depiction of
NASA’s Space Launch System rocketing a crew toward


  • NASA is building a super-heavy-lift rocket called the
    Space Launch System to send
    astronauts back to the moon.
  • The SLS program has seen multiple delays and cost
    overruns, and the rocket is not reusable.
  • Elon Musk’s and Jeff Bezos’ aerospace
    companies SpaceX
    and Blue
    , respectively, are developing comparable yet
    reusable (and presumably more affordable) giant rocket
  • If SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket or Blue
    Origin’s New Glenn rockets come online, one
    NASA executive said the agency would “eventually retire”
  • For now, though, NASA says it’s focused on completing
    its Commercial Crew Program to
    test-launch American spaceships.

NASA is building a giant rocket ship to
return astronauts to the moon
and, eventually, ferry the
first crews
to and from Mars

But agency leaders are already contemplating the retirement of
the Space Launch System (SLS), as the towering and yet-to-fly
government rocket is called, and the Orion space capsule that’ll
ride on top.

NASA is anticipating the emergence of two reusable, and
presumably more affordable, mega-rockets that private aerospace
companies are creating.

Those systems are the
Big Falcon Rocket
(BFR), which is
being built
by Elon Musk’s SpaceX; and the
New Glenn
, a launcher being built by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

Read more:
Elon Musk and SpaceX are building a monster rocket for Mars.
Here’s how big it is compared to 20 familiar objects.

“I think our view is that if those commercial capabilities come
online, we will eventually retire the government system, and just
move to a buying launch capacity on those [rockets],” Stephen Jurczyk, NASA’s
associate administrator, told Business Insider at The Economist
Space Summit on November 1.

However, NASA may soon find itself in a strange position, since
the two private launch systems may beat SLS back to the moon —
and one might be the first to send people to Mars.

The super-size struggles with SLS

space launch system sls rocket scale model wind tunnel testing uv ultraviolet pink nasa ames dominic hart acd16 0195 013
Shea inspects a 1.3% scale model of the NASA’s Space Launch
System (SLS) in a wind tunnel.


Space Launch System is often called a super-heavy-lift rocket.
This means it’s designed to heave a payload of more than 55 tons
(roughly the mass of a battle tank) into
low-Earth orbit

“We need a [super-]heavy-lift launch capability,” Jurczyk said.
“Without it, we’re not going to have a safe, reliable, and
affordable architecture and implementation for human

Several iterations of SLS are planned
through the 2020s, and the first is called Block 1. This rocket
is expected to stand about 322 feet tall and be able to lift
about 70 tons of spacecraft hardware and supplies into orbit.

NASA hopes to test-launch the first Block 1 rocket in June 2020
on a flight called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). The mission aims
to prove SLS is safe and reliable by sending an
uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the moon and back to Earth.

A crewed Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) would follow several years

space launch system sls exploration mission 2 orion spaceship moon lunar free return diagram nasa
NASA plans to pull off its Exploration Mission-2 flight with the
Space Launch System rocket and Orion


But so far NASA has spent about $11.9 billion on SLS, and the
agency is projected to need $4-5 billion more than it has planned
by 2021. Relatedly, the scheduled launch date for EM-1 in June
2020 is about 2.5 years behind-schedule.

internal audit of NASA’s program
found that preventable
accidents, contract management problems, and other performance
issues related to Boeing, the prime contractor, is largely
responsible for the cost overruns and delays.

Such issues have some experts estimating an average cost of $5
billion per SLS launch, which are single-use. Presumably, SpaceX
or Blue Origin could launch at with a similar capability at a
fraction of that price since their vehicles are reusable.

If more hiccups come with the program, NASA may be watching
SpaceX beat the agency to the moon with a crewed mission. That’s
because Musk, the company’s founder, is pursuing
aggressive timelines
to reach the moon and Mars with BFR.

How SpaceX could beat NASA back to the moon

big falcon rocket bfr spaceship bfs booster bfb earth moon orbit spacex 30934146588_47ce17419b_o
An illustration of the
SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, launching into space. Here,
the spaceship is shown detaching from the


SpaceX employees have been
toiling under a tent in Los Angeles
to build the top half of
the system, called the Big Falcon Spaceship.

Musk and Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president, have both said the
spaceship could be doing short launches called “hops” as soon as
late 2019.

Musk also plans to modify an upper stage of his blockbuster
Falcon 9 rocket into a “mini-BFR
” to test and prove some of the more challenging aspects
of the larger and fully reusable spacecraft. One is trying out a
heat shield for surviving blazing-hot reentry into Earth’s
atmosphere (to protect a crew and allow the spaceship to be
fueled and launched again).

big falcon rocket bfr spacex scale dimensions measurements
planned dimensions of SpaceX’s Big Falcon

Olivia Reaney/Business

In 2020 or 2021, he aims to launch a fully integrated version of
BFR — a Big Falcon Booster with the Big Falcon Spaceship on top —
into orbit around Earth. (Around the same time, Blue Origin is
planning to use New Glenn, a major section of which can land back
on Earth and be reused, to
deliver a lander
to the surface of the moon to
scout for water ice

If SpaceX’s first orbital launch and later uncrewed missions fly
an explosion or other incident
, the company intends to fly a

Japanese billionaire and a group of artists around the moon

in 2023.

It remains to be seen how the space agency would react to such a
feat, which is essentially a creative reprise of the
Apollo 8 mission of 1968
. In fact, 2023 is the same year NASA
plans to launch EM-2 around the moon.

big falcon rocket bfr spaceship bfs earth moon mission spacex 43895099105_6d7013a5df_o
An illustration of the
spaceship of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, flying around
the moon.


It’s also unknown what NASA would do if SpaceX launches its first
unmanned missions to Mars with BFR in 2022, followed by the first
crewed missions to the red planet in 2024. That’s several years
ahead of when the space agency hopes to land people on the
, and perhaps a decade sooner than NASA would attempt a
crewed Mars landing.

“We haven’t really engaged SpaceX on how we’d work together on
BFR, and eventually get to a Mars mission — yet,” Jurczyk said of
NASA’s leadership. “My guess is that it’s coming.”

A US space agency without an American spaceship

nasa astronauts commercial crew program august 2018 AP_18215575643268
astronauts will fly the first four crewed missions inside SpaceX
and Boeing’s new spaceships for NASA, called Crew Dragon and
CST-100 Starliner, respectively.

via AP

Right now, Jurczyk said, he and others in the space agency’s
leadership are laser-focused on test launches for its
Commercial Crew Program
, a competition for private companies
to build and launch American-made spaceships.

The ultimate goal of Commercial Crew is to revive US spaceflight
capabilities that the agency lost when it retired the space
shuttle fleet in 2011. (Ever since then, NASA has
relied solely on Russia
taxi its astronauts
to and from the
$150 billion International Space Station

Boeing and SpaceX have each designed and built seven-person space
capsules, which are nearing approval for uncrewed and crewed test
launches. SpaceX is currently looking to fly first with its

Crew Dragon ship

“Their first uncrewed flight test, right now, is scheduled for
January, followed by, not many months later, maybe in the
springtime, their first crewed flight test to the space station,”
Jurczyk said.

Read more:
Boeing may have used a lobbying firm to plant a scathing opinion
piece about SpaceX in US news outlets. At stake are billions of
dollars in NASA contracts.

Once the Crew Dragon and Boeing’s
CST-100 Starliner
ships prove they can launch safely and
reliably, the agency’s leadership will further debate its
deep-space future with BFR and Blue Origin’s New Glenn.

“How we engage will depend a lot on the pace at which those
systems and capabilities develop,” Jurczyk said.

The key for NASA is to get to some kind of super-heavy-lift
capability, as quickly as possible. 

“Right now we see the way to do that is through SLS, because we
kind of have the head-start and use these legacy technologies and
systems,” he said, referring to the fact that
SLS will use space shuttle engines
and other well-understood

“That’s kind of where we are,” Jurczyk added. “We know we need
that kind of BFR — and whatever evolves from New Glenn —
heavy-lift capability if we’re going to do human exploration of
the solar system. We don’t think another approach is going to be
as safe, affordable, and reliable.”

Continue Reading
Advertisement Find your dream job