June 29, 2016

New name for Space Launch System gets backing of lawmakers

Artist's concept of NASA's Space Launch System. Credit: NASA/MSFC
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Space Launch System. Credit: NASA/MSFC

A push to give NASA’s Space Launch System a new name is garnering support from lawmakers, who have written into legislation provisions that would order NASA to rename the heavy-lift rocket through a competition among schoolchildren.

If passed into law, the bill would set policy for NASA and includes budget guidelines that would shuffle funding from the agency’s Earth science programs into other areas, primarily the Space Launch System, Orion crew capsule and robotic exploration of the solar system.

The House Science Committee passed the NASA Authorization Act for 2016 and 2017 on Thursday. The bill now goes to the full House for a vote.

The Senate has not yet considered its own version of a NASA authorization act.

Language in the authorization bill would direct NASA to “conduct a well-publicized competition among students in elementary and secondary schools to name the elements of the administration’s exploration program.”

NASA should give a name to the agency’s entire exploration program, including the SLS, Orion spacecraft and future missions. The bill also directs NASA to rename the SLS itself.

An identical section was included in a previous version of an authorization bill that passed the House in February, and NASA officials have had internal discussions of renaming the Space Launch System.

NASA announced Orion as the name of the crew transport capsule in 2006, when it was part of the Constellation program aimed at returning humans to the moon.

The Obama administration canceled the behind-schedule Constellation program in 2010, and refocused NASA on partnering with commercial space companies to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.

The Orion capsule survived the cancellation and emerged as a component of NASA’s new exploration program with the Space Launch System aimed at eventually taking humans to Mars.

Propelled by a pair of solid rocket boosters, four space shuttle-era rocket engines and an upper stage derived from the Delta 4 launcher, the first version of the Space Launch System will stand 321 feet tall and blast off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The SLS will produce 8.4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff — more power than any launcher since the Soviet Union’s ill-fated N1 moon rocket

Its first test flight is scheduled for 2018, when it will dispatch an uncrewed Orion capsule on a 25-day mission to lunar orbit and back to Earth. A flight around the moon with astronauts is scheduled to follow in 2021.

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