US space agency NASA said Friday it will delay the first launch of its heavy payload rocket, until 2019. It also has declined to take up the White House’s suggestion to put astronauts aboard the capsule on its mission to fly around the moon. The space agency had hoped to launch the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket in November of 2018. It will send the deep space Orion capsule on a high lunar orbit. The launch would mark the start of NASA’s long term plans to use the rocket to transport astronauts and equipment to Mars.
In February, NASA began to consider President Donald Trump’s suggestion of putting a two-astronaut crew aboard the capsule for the trial flight. A study concluded that they should wait until a second flight before a manned mission, according to NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot.
He said the study “really reaffirmed that the baseline plan we have in place was the best way for us to go,” speaking to reporters during a conference call. He said that the addition of systems to support a crew would have cost an additional $600 to $900 million more, and would have forced a delay of the launch until 2020.
Even without adding a crew, he said the SLC will not be prepared for its launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center until 2019. He also said NASA would be able to offer a more specific time frame for the launch in roughly a month. The delay will push the second, possibly crewed flight, back to 2021, according to NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier.
NASA has attributed the delays to technical issues encountered while developing the SLS and the Orion capsule, as well as damage to the rocket’s manufacturing plant in New Orleans resulting from a tornado there.
According to an audit by NASA’s Office of Inspector General, NASA will have spent 23 billion on the rocket, capsule, launch site, and support systems, by the end of the next fiscal year in September of 2018.
That figure does include 9 billion spent on the no longer active Constellation lunar exploration program, which included initial development of the Orion capsule and a of a second heavy-lift rocket.
The SLC rocket, which uses engines from the space shuttle as well as shuttle-delivered booster rockets, will be able to lift around 77 tons (70 metric tons) into orbit 100 miles above Earth. Later versions are expected to offer around twice that capacity.
“We’re really building a system. it is much, much more than one flight,” says Gerstenmaier.