As it has been doing for the past half decade, NASA has now begun the process of issuing hints about a future announcement of more SLS launch delays, in order to prepare the public and neuter any possible negative news coverage.
The linked article above outlines in great detail the present status of SLS and the assembly of its core stage. The main decision the agency now faces is whether it will do what it calls an “SLS Green Run,” where they assemble that core stage on a test stand at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and fire it for a full duration static test. Such a test is necessary to validate the engineering models that were used to build the rocket. Without it no one will know if they have modeled the design correctly, meaning that during the first real launch they might find the rocket does not perform as predicted and could even fail.
Doing this test however will guarantee that the first SLS launch, Artemis 1, will not occur in June 2020 as presently scheduled, and will likely be delayed for another year.
The Trump administration has already made it clear it will not take kindly to more SLS delays. It has also made it clear that it will consider already available commercial options, such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, if NASA cannot deliver SLS as promised.
This puts NASA in a quandary.
The only way the agency has any chance of meeting the June 2020 date for the Artemis 1 launch would be for it to cancel the Green Run and go straight to launch. To do this however carries the risk of a launch failure, which would certainly kill SLS for good.
If they do the Green Run and delay that first launch, however, the Trump administration might kill SLS anyway, since it will have once again failed to meet its schedule.
NASA’s solution? Dribble out stories, such as this one, hinting of further delays in order to soften the political blow, and make Trump and Congress more agreeable to those delays.
This has been NASA’s strategy since 2014, when it became clear that SLS would not be ready for launch in 2017. They dribbled out information hinting at a further delay, and then announced a one-year delay to 2018. And then repeated the same process in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. Each year they first hinted at more delays, as they are doing now in 2019, and when they were satisfied that the blow was sufficiently cushioned, then announced officially the further delays.
The problem with this dance is that it was patently clear as early as 2012 that the first SLS launch would not occur before 2020, at the very earliest.
The bottom line is that the entire SLS project has been very badly managed. It has cost too much, it has taken too long to build, and as designed it is unaffordable to use for future American manned spaceflight.
In fact, the linked article unintentionally describes SLS/Orion perfectly. The article is entitled “Waiting for Artemis 1 schedule update, official decision on SLS Green Run”, which could have been shortened to just “Waiting for Artemis 1” in homage to Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, since both are about waiting for something that never arrives.
In Beckett’s play the waiting never ends. With SLS/Orion, we might be coming very close to the end, as in the end of SLS itself.
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