The new head of NASA’s human spaceflight programs, Doug Loverro has thrown his support behind the development of the Space Launch System (SLS). Loverro claimed that the heavy-lift rocket is “absolutely mandatory” for the agency’s goal of returning to the Moon by 2024.
At a town hall meeting at NASA Headquarters on December 3, Loverro addressed agency employees with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. The pair pushed back against criticism that the SLS is far more expensive than the commercial alternative and will ultimately not be a sustainable method of launching crews and cargo.
This latest round of criticism stems from an October letter from the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russel Vought to Senator Richard Shelby, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. In the letter, Vought requests that NASA be allowed to seek commercial alternatives to launch the agency’s Europa Clipper mission.
The Europa Clipper mission is a flagship interplanetary mission that is set to study Europa, one of Jupiter’s Galilean moons. Currently, a Senate appropriations bill mandates that the mission must be launched aboard an SLS rocket, which has been estimated to cost roughly $2 billion per launch. Vought argues that allowing the agency to launch the mission aboard a commercial alternative could save NASA as much as $1.5 billion.
During the town hall, Bridenstine disputed the estimated cost per launch. “I do not agree with the $2 billion number. It is far less than that,” he said. “I would also say the number comes way down when you buy more than one or two.”
As Bridenstine disputed te cost, Loverro argued that the SLS was not competing with commercial launch vehicles. He claimed that the long-delayed heavy-lift rocket is a mandatory element in the agency’s plan to return humans to the Moon by 2024.
“The fact of the matter is, the only system we have today that is designed, purpose-built, to go ahead and get men to the moon and women to the moon is the SLS,” he said. “That program is absolutely mandatory, in my view right now, to go ahead and get there.”
The SLS will be one of Loverro’s top priorities during his tenure at NASA. The next-generation heavy-lift rocket was originally scheduled to be launched on its maiden mission by the end of 2017. However, development challenges and cost overruns have delayed its maiden flight by several years with seemingly no end in sight.
Currently, the agency is targeting no later than 2020 for the maiden flight, a date that many believe to be overly ambitious.