NASA announced Thursday that work on the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew capsule at facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi is being halted due to the spreading coronavirus pandemic, a stoppage that could force further delays on the already behind-schedule and over-budget programs. Meanwhile, NASA officials are making plans to continue working on the agency’s next Mars rover to keep it on schedule for launch later this year, even if the virus forces further closures.
The powerful Space Launch System rocket being built for NASA’s Artemis moon program by Boeing, using solid-propellant boosters from Northrop Grumman and main engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne, will have cost more than $18 billion by the time it blasts off on its maiden flight in 2021, NASA’s Office of Inspector General reported Tuesday.
The Trump administration is requesting $25.2 billion for NASA in fiscal 2021, a 12 percent increase that includes $3.3 billion to kickstart development of a human-rated lander for the Artemis moon program. Nearly half of the budget request, $12.3 billion, is devoted to new and ongoing projects focused on the return to the moon and eventual flights to Mars.
NASA has declared assembly complete on the core stage for the first Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket in New Orleans, signaling a long-awaited transition from manufacturing to testing as the core stage is set to move to the nearby Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for a hold-down firing next year of its four shuttle-era main engines.
Boeing is touting a lunar lander concept that the company claims could launch in one piece on an upgraded version of NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket — which Boeing largely builds — and deliver astronauts to the moon’s surface in 2024 without going through NASA’s planned Gateway mini-space station.