ATK prepares for another test firing of its five-segment solid rocket motor.

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ATK prepares for another test firing of its five-segment solid rocket motor.

The qualification campaign, led by rocket-builder ATK, will prove the solid-fueled motor is ready to help propel the Space Launch System from Earth on two test flights in 2017 and 2021.

Though obviously funded out of the Space Launch System program (SLS), there is no guarantee at this moment that ATK’s solid rocket will be used in these test flights. NASA has said that they are considering all options for picking the launch rocket.

In a sense, we are now seeing a side benefit produced by relying on independent and competing private companies to get into space. It has placed pressure on NASA and the companies building SLS to perform. Unlike in the past, when failure to produce a new rocket or spaceship meant that NASA would simply propose a new concept and start again, now failure will mean that someone else might get the work. The result: SLS might actually get built, for less money and faster.

Though I don’t see how NASA can possibly cut the costs down to compete with these private companies, their effort might succeed enough for Congress to keep the money spigots open until the rocket gets built.

Even as I say this I remain skeptical. Considering the federal budget situation, the politics of the upcoming election, and the strong possibility that private companies will successfully provide that launch capability at a tenth the cost, I expect that sometime in the next two or three years Congress will finally balk at SLS’s cost, and eliminate it.


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