NASA’s delay of megarocket launch puts competition in spotlight

SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center on Monday, May 15, 2017, carrying a 13,400-pound satellite into space for London-based Inmarsat. (SpaceX)

SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center on Monday, May 15, 2017, carrying a 13,400-pound satellite into space for London-based Inmarsat. (SpaceX)

NASA’s delay in ferrying astronauts to the moon comes as competition has heated up, with SpaceX and Boeing aiming to build passenger capsules and heavy-lift craft — and launch them from Florida — by the end of next year.

“You can make a strong argument that NASA is in a space race with SpaceX right now,” said Ray Lugo, director of the University of Central Florida’s Space Institute. “The commercial guys have a much more streamlined process.”

NASA recently announced that a maiden voyage of its behemoth Space Launch System would be pushed back from November 2018 into at least 2019, with human flight on SLS waiting until a second mission aimed at 2021. The delay followed a report from the Government Accountability Office that called the optimistic timeline “likely unachievable.”

Trying to launch next year “is not in the best interest of the program, and we are in the process of establishing a new target in 2019,” NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William Gerstenmaier agreed in an April 12 response.

The delay “is unfortunate, but not surprising,” said Phil Larson, an assistant dean at the University of Colorado who previously worked with SpaceX and who was former space policy adviser to President Barack Obama. “If you talk to folks in the agency, they all knew this was coming.”

NASA relies heavily on a federal budget that fluctuates from year to year. The testing phase for its vehicles can take more time while dealing with layers of governmental approval.

“People expect them to get it right every time because they have to explain when they don’t to 300 million Americans,” Lugo said. “So it’s hard to compare the two.”

Private companies, like early-stage startup firms, can work directly with private financial backers or billionaire CEOs when making adjustments. That can include NASA as a client.

Boeing and SpaceX have signed NASA contracts for the use of their crew capsules to send astronauts to the International Space Station.

SpaceX’s Dragon 2 capsule is planned to run a test flight later this year and a crewed flight in May 2018. The company is preparing to send two private citizens around the moon next year, as well.

Recently, SpaceX said that the mission remains on track — but Musk said at a news conference in February that they would prioritize the launch of astronauts for NASA if conflicts arose.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule has three major milestones scheduled for 2018: a test flight in June, a human test flight in August and a trip to the International Space Station in December.

In April, the Denver Post reported that United Launch Alliance President and CEO Tory Bruno announced at a space symposium that the company wants to “develop a fleet of ‘space trucks’ to ferry people between Earth and moon.” The timing of that effort is unclear. A ULA spokeswoman declined comment.

The term “space race” might be too strong, said Mary Lynne Ditmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration. The nonprofit advocates for deep-space exploration.

“The objectives of these players are really different,” Ditmar said. While NASA hopes to build infrastructure in space that will support deep-space exploration, she says, “SpaceX and ULA are both in the business of making money and bringing value to their investors and shareholders.”

The SLS delays likely come from NASA’s tendency to play it safe, Space Florida President and CEO Frank Dibello said.

“What you are hearing is NASA’s conservative risk-management approach,” Dibello said. “They want to make sure they are comfortable with the vehicle and make it safe for when they put humans in it. It’s a perfectly reasonable decision.”

“Schedules rarely slip to the left. They almost always slip to the right.”

President Donald Trump had asked NASA to consider sending an astronaut on the November 2018 test flight, known as Exploration Mission 1.

Lugo trusts that NASA officials believe their new 2019 timeline for Exploration Mission 1 but would likely not be too hesitant to push that back if needed.

“They try not to be too schedule-driven,” he said. “But they are also not ignorant of the fact that people expect them to hold a schedule. When you look at the pace SpaceX has been on, though, the people at NASA have to say that they look to be on schedule.”