Orion's first moon flight could be on commercial rocket, NASA administrator says

SpaceX, ULA heavy lift rockets could launch Orion, service module

Exploded view of the Orion spacecraft with European Space Agency (ESA) Service Module. (Image credit: NASA)
Exploded view of the Orion spacecraft with European Space Agency (ESA) Service Module. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Wednesday the space agency's Orion spacecraft could launch for a journey around the moon on a commercial rocket instead of NASA’s Space Launch System.

The unnamed heavy lift rocket would launch Orion into orbit for Exploration Mission-1, an uncrewed three-week flight to test Orion’s deep space capabilities. A separate rocket would launch the European Service Module that will dock with Orion, and the vehicles will then orbit the moon for EM-1.

NASA officials recently said that the June 2020 launch could slip again due to more delays with the megarocket's development. EM-1 was originally scheduled for December of last year and previously in 2017.

On Wednesday, Bridenstine told the committee's chairman, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., NASA is considering other options to keep the Orion test flight on track.

"I think we as an agency need to stick to our commitments," Bridenstine said. "Sir, if we tell you and others that we’re going to launch in June of 2020 around the moon, which is what EM-1 is, I think we should launch around the moon in June of 2020 and I think it can be done."

To meet that deadline, the administrator said he has tasked the agency to look into how to accomplish the June 2020 deadline.

"Some of those options would include launching on the Orion crew capsule and the European Service Module on a commercial rocket," Bridenstine said.

"It’s been done before," the administrator said referring to the December 2014 Orion test flight from Cape Canaveral atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket. 

Orion successfully launched on a 4 1/2 hour mission before re-entering Earth's atmosphere at a speed of almost 20,000 mph and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

There are two rockets that could make EM-1 happen: Obviously, ULA’s Delta IV Heavy because NASA has contracted ULA to launch Orion on its first test flight and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.

In a statement a ULA spokesperson said the company would work to meet NASA's needs while also acknowledging that the ULA's current heavy lift rocket would not reach the powerful capabilities of SLS.

“ULA recognizes the unparalleled capabilities of NASA’s Space Launch System for enabling efficient architectures in Cislunar and Mars exploration. We are proud to have worked collaboratively with The Boeing Company to develop the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) for the first flight of the SLS. If asked, we can provide a description of the capabilities of our launch vehicles for meeting NASA’s needs, but acknowledge that these do not match the super heavy lift performance and mission capabilities provided by SLS for the Exploration Missions proposed by NASA.” 

SLS is designed to pack a powerful 8.4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff where as the Delta IV Heavy is more than 2 million pounds at liftoff. Only the Space Shuttle and the Saturn V were close to that level of lift performance. SpaceX's Falcon Heavy generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.


The Delta IV Heavy costs an average of $350 million per launch. While SpaceX recently sold its heavy lift vehicle with three reusable boosters to the U.S. Air Force for a classified military launch to the tune of $130 million. According to SpaceX’s website, Falcon Heavy pricing starts at $90 million.

What Falcon Heavy is lacking is the flight experience. ULA’s heavy lift rocket has launched payloads for the U.S. Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office and NASA in the last 15 years with a 100 percent success rate. SpaceX successfully launched the Falcon Heavy for the first time last year from Kennedy Space Center and is preparing for the first contracted Falcon Heavy launch this spring.

What does this mean for the rocket NASA has already put $12 billion into its development? It means more delays.

"We’re now understanding better how difficult this project is and that it is going to take additional time," Bridenstine said of SLS, which has been in development since 2011.

Even with a commercial launch provider, NASA’s Orion spacecraft and the service module still have a way to go before launch. Orion is being built by Lockheed Martin, and the service module is being provided by the European Space Agency and its partner, Airbus Defense and Space.

In the most recent update on SLS and Orion, NASA officials said engineers are still working on stacking the spacecraft and service module and there are several tests to come to make sure the two operate fully together.

If a 2020 commercial launch of Orion happens, a launch abort system test will also take place before the first mission with crew.


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