The pressurized crew module and European-built service module for NASA’s first Orion spacecraft to travel to the moon will be joined together for the first time in the coming weeks at the Kennedy Space Center, with preparations — at least for Orion — on a pace to be ready for launch on an unpiloted test flight next year.
A towering mobile platform for the agency’s Space Launch System arrived at launch pad 39B Friday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a sequence of water and propellant flow tests, swing arm checkouts and other rehearsals that should conclude with managers declaring the spaceport’s ground systems ready to support the first SLS launch campaign by the end of the year.
A senior NASA official said Tuesday that the Space Launch System, a huge heavy-lift rocket years behind schedule, could launch astronauts on a moon landing mission in 2024 on just its third flight to meet a goal announced last month by Vice President Mike Pence, while commercial companies will be entrusted with more responsibility to develop a lunar lander and a modest mini-space station, or Gateway, in lunar orbit.
Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday that NASA should land astronauts near the south pole of the moon within five years “by any means necessary,” calling for “new urgency” in the U.S. space program and sounding a warning for entrenched aerospace contractors to better meet schedule and cost commitments, or else lose work to other companies.
In a major shift, NASA is considering using two commercial launchers to send an unpiloted Orion crew capsule and its European-built service module on a test flight around the moon next year, maintaining the lunar test flight’s schedule despite fresh delays in the development of the multibillion-dollar Space Launch System that jeopardize the heavy-lifter’s 2020 inaugural flight, the agency’s administrator said in a congressional hearing Wednesday.