According to a Friday post on the Space Politics blog, NASA’s Space Launch System program manager Todd May was upbeat about the heavy lift rocket meeting its planned schedule in advance of a planned December, 2017 test launch. This somewhat contradicts not only a recent GAO report that pointed out risks in the schedule based on NASA’s budget but also a report in NASASpaceflight.com that suggests the launch will slip to September, 2018, reportedly due to issues with the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. There are also still concerns about how much the SLS can be used assuming flat or declining NASA budgets.
May explained the discrepancy between his assessment and the GAO report by suggesting that the GAO was basing its conclusion on Obama administration requests for funding for the Space Launch System. However Congress has been a little more generous in providing money for the heavy lift rocket. If that generosity continues, the SLS should be on track and ready for the December 2017 launch.
However the 2017 launch date will likely slip because of an ongoing effort to lighten the Orion space craft. This is required in order to reduce the spacecraft’s reentry speed. The first test of the SLS will involve sending an unpiloted Orion around the moon, to reentry the Earth and splash down in the Pacific at speeds it would travel after any deep space mission.
Also of concern to space experts both inside and outside of NASA is the projected flight rate of the SLS, about once every two years. This would not support a vigorous deep space exploration program. The slow flight tempo would not allow launch crews to remain practiced in getting the rocket off the ground either. The flight rate is based solely on a projected flat budget for the foreseeable future.
It is not as if there is not a lot of useful things that the heavy lift launcher can do. Besides supporting crewed deep space missions to the moon, asteroids, and ultimately Mars, there are a number of planetary missions the SLS would enable. Everything from landers and orbiters to Europa and Titan to an orbiter to Pluto have been mentioned as possibilities. All it would take is a commitment of money.