NASA made an announcement Wednesday concerning the heavy lift Space Launch System that contained some good news and some not unexpected bad news. The good news is that the SLS has passed a crucial review and will now pass for formulation to development. The bad news is that the first test launch of the heavy lift rocket may slip as far as November, 2018. It has originally been scheduled for a December, 2017 launch that will send an unpiloted Orion spacecraft around the moon before heading back to Earth on a free return trajectory.
As the Houston Chronicle points out, the Space Launch System has suffered from lean, flat budgets that have not only hampered its development but have also left it without a lot of funded missions. The slip, according to NASASpaceflight, has more to do with issues with the Orion spacecraft than it does the SLS. Despite criticism from commercial space advocates who have called for the cancellation of the heavy lift rocket, it compares well to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which is two years late from its original 2013 launch date.
The only other manifested launch is a 2020s mission to lunar orbit as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission. There are plenty of ideas for using the SLS, ranging from big planetary probes to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, to a renewed return to the moon effort. A version of the Space Launch System will be used to mount crewed missions to Mars.
In the meantime, the SLS has progressed to the stage of bending metal. NASA has had a myriad of spacecraft development projects that have fallen short and have been cancelled before getting to that step. The last spacecraft of this size and complexity to get to this step was the space shuttle. So it looks like that the Space Launch System will be built and flight tested. It will be up to a future president and congresses to figure out what to do with it.