NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said the Orion spacecraft could be launched from a commercial rocket, ie produced by a third party (privately). It was the first time that the number one of the famous space agency evaluated the possibility.
The first flight of Orion, EM-1 or Exploration Mission-1, is scheduled for June 2020. It is part of a test that will send the capsule around the Moon for six days, with a total duration of the mission of about three weeks. It also had to be the debut of SLS , the Space Launch System, the giant NASA rocket. However, SLS has suffered countless production delays and surpassing the expected costs has certainly not helped: this has only delayed the start date of EM-1, but it seems that the NASA administration wishes to make some progress in its lunar program by 2020 and therefore starting the mission with the use of a commercial rocket would seem the best option. In the coming weeks the final decision will be taken.
There are only two space launchers currently in operation that are able to support this mission, ULA’s Delta IV Heavy and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. It will take two launches to put the entire apparatus into orbit – one to launch the Orion capsule into low Earth orbit and the other to push it to the Moon (and back).
The interesting aspect is that NASA has admitted that commercial rockets might be able to replace SLS. Of course, they may need additional missiles to do the SLS job, but it’s not necessarily a flaw: among other things, building in space is much easier and less expensive than building and launching a giant rocket. The question now is: what will be the future of SLS if the US space agency is starting to evaluate commercial rockets for its manned missions outside the Earth’s orbit? It will certainly be interesting to follow the story.