Thursday, March 5, 2015

Orion's Slip is Showing

Click the arrow to watch the March 4, 2015 House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

The House Appropriations House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies held a hearing March 4 on NASA's Fiscal Year 2016 proposed budget.

Unlike the House space subcommittee which sets policy, the appropriations committee actually provides the money, so this subcommittee is considered more powerful.

This hearing was generally amiable, but NASA Administrator Charles Bolden answered a question with a reply that suggests the first launch of the Space Launch System will slip yet again, this time into 2019.

After discussing the Orion crew capsule test flight last December 5, Bolden described the next launch in this program. Click here for his remarks, which begin at about 1 hour 9 minutes into the hearing.

The first flight for us has already occurred. That was Orion on the 5th of [December], so that was the first flight in our exploration program. Very successful. It did not, it was not, in its configuration for, you know, sending humans to deep space, but that was the first flight, very successful.

The second flight for us will come in sometime after 2018, to be precise. And the reason that I say “sometime after 2018” is we will tell this Congress much more precisely sometime this summer when we finish with the next milestone on Orion itself.

You may say, “I asked you about SLS. Why are you telling me about Orion?” Because they're a pair. We're not talking about flying SLS without Orion for deep space exploration just yet. So when we know when Orion will be ready to fly, then we will know when we can fly the SLS with Orion as a pair.

SLS, ground systems are ready now for a, we have a launch readiness date of late 2018, so that's in place. We don't have a launch readiness date yet for Orion.

When Congress ordered NASA in 2010 to create SLS, it wrote in Section 302 of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that “Priority should be placed on the core elements with the goal for operational capability for the core elements not later than December 31, 2016.”

That date quickly slipped into 2017. Then last August 27 NASA announced it had slipped again to late 2018.

Technically speaking, NASA said that the agency has a 70% confidence level that SLS will be “ready” by November 2018. “Ready” doesn't mean it will launch in that month; in fact, at that teleconference the NASA executives went to great lengths to stress that the November 2018 estimate applies only to the rocket, not to the Orion crew vehicle or the European Space Agency-built service module or the Kennedy Space Center ground systems upgrades.

The purpose of the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) flight is to send the Orion on an uncrewed test flight that could demonstrate orbits around the Moon before returning to Earth.

If the Orion, if the ESA service module, are not ready, then EM-1 doesn't launch.

So it appears that SLS at the most optimistic will launch for the first time more than two years behind the date mandated by Congress.

It should also bring into question how quickly Orion's prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, can deliver a crew vehicle.

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