Donald Trump wants to take a giant leap forward in the public-private partnership in outer space and may tell NASA to ditch their own launch vehicles in favor of using commercial spacecraft on a contract basis.
To help ease the transition, NASA issued a request for information Friday asking for ideas on how to cut development and production costs of its SLS rocket and Orion crew capsule and ideas on competing spacecraft.
“NASA is transitioning from design and development to long-term affordability and sustainability within a broader exploration framework.”
The Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew vehicle are the backbone of NASA’s plan to launch a manned Mars mission sometime in the 2030s.
The space agency would prefer to use the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft it has been designing and building at the cost of some $3 billion annually, but admits the construction effort has been costly.
In August, the Government Accountability Office audited the space agency and released a report saying NASA probably won’t complete the SLS or Orion on time or on budget.
A few weeks later, the NASA engineer responsible for the production of the SLS and Orion told Ars Technica the development of the spacecraft was getting to be too expensive for the agency to handle.
“We’re just way too expensive today. It’s going to take some different thinking and maybe a little bit more risk taking than what we’re wanting to do today.”
NASA receives 0.5 percent of the national budget, and building such an expensive spacecraft has left little room for actual exploration. Their funding levels probably won’t increase once Donald Trump takes office.
Shortly before Trump won the election, he outlined a plan to move NASA away from being an Earth-monitoring agency and focus it on exploring space. He plans to use the reconstituted National Space Agency to manage federal, military, and commercial activities to eliminate redundant programs.
In this request for information, NASA has signaled its willingness to consider alternatives provided by its commercial partners if that means costs will be cut.
SpaceX is hip deep into development on its Falcon Heavy rocket, and Blue Origin is working to build its New Glenn boosters, both of which are in the same class as the SLS and cheaper to fly.
The United Launch Alliance is also building its own Vulcan rocket with a reusable first stage and a second stage designed to stay permanently in orbit where it will ferry cargo shuttled up by other spacecraft.
It would feel good to have an official American spaceship, but with cheaper commercial spacecraft probably available for government contract work in the coming years, it’s easy to see why Trump would consider ditching the SLS.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin are building the Orion and its SLS rocket, but NASA’s request for information also covers the possibility of using components from different companies if that makes construction cheaper.
Anyone looking to respond to NASA has until December 23 to respond.
Since the heyday of the space program, when Kennedy told NASA to beat the Soviets to the moon, the agency has struggled with funding and changing goals, USC astronautics professor Mike Gruntman told the International Business Times.
“The main problem is that we do not have a clear long-term goal for the national human spaceflight program. Being rudderless does not help in bringing public excitement and support.”
Trump’s plan to coordinate civilian, federal, and military efforts to explore space may be the alternative to increased funding for the space agency.
What do you think about the possibility of ditching the SLS rocket and Orion crew capsule?
[Featured Image by NASA/MSFC]