NASA has a pretty tall order ahead of them. Last month, Vice President Mike Pence announced that they had a new goal to put humans back on the moon by 2024. As a result, NASA will need to accelerate many of its lunar-related programs if they hope to meet that deadline. One of the first big hurdles in achieving the goal is getting the Space Launch System (SLS) ready to send a lunar vehicle into orbit.
Known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM1), there were considerations made that included using commercial launch vehicles to send up the vehicles. However, Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator, has committed to using the SLS to send the Orion craft up sometime in the middle of next year. He went on to say that two of the biggest reasons he wants to stick with the SLS instead of commercial options are budget and time. Using commercial spacecraft to get Orion into space would simply cost too much and take the lunar program well off schedule.
In the meantime, NASA is taking the next several weeks to look at ways to speed up the SLS program. One option they’re considering is skipping a test phase of the rockets that will be used for Exploration Mission 1. This “core stage” testing could set the program back months if went through. By sending the rocket directly to Kennedy Space Center, experts believe the program could get as much as six months back on the mission. Plus, the rockets can still be tested individually and eliminate almost as much risk as if the original testing plans had gone through.
Bridenstine also said that NASA is looking into testing multiple stages of the program at the same time. This “horizontal” approach to testing is different from the normal, “vertical” approach that NASA missions like this usually follow.
There’s still quite a bit of grey area at this point regarding the Space Launch System and EM 1. NASA certainly isn’t committing to any official timelines, but Bridenstine is confident that the changes in proposed testing will definitely push up the date when we finally get humans back on the lunar surface.