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Congress frees Europa Clipper from SLS

It appears that Congress has at last removed its requirement that the unmanned probe Europa Clipper must be launched on the continually delayed and very expensive SLS rocket.

Almost unnoticed, tucked into the 2021 fiscal NASA funding section of the recently passed omnibus spending bill, is a provision that would seem to liberate the upcoming Europa Clipper mission from the Space Launch System (SLS).

According to Space News, the mandate that the Europa Clipper mission be launched on an SLS remains in place only if the behind-schedule and overpriced heavy lift rocket is available and if concerns about hardware compatibility between the probe and the launcher are resolved. Otherwise, NASA is free to search for commercial alternatives to get the Europa Clipper to Jupiter’s ice-shrouded moon.

Not only will this secure Europa Clipper’s launch schedule, which had deadlines imposed by orbital mechanics that SLS was not going to meet, the more than $1 billion in savings by using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy will allow the probe to do more while giving NASA more money for other planetary missions.

This is excellent news. It signals that Congress’s long love affair with SLS because of the ample pork it sends to many districts might finally be waning. If so, there is a good chance it will finally be killed, freeing up its bloated budget.

Sadly, in a sane world some of those savings would be used to reduce the overall federal deficit even as some was also used to expand NASA’s space effort. We are not in a sane world, however, so expect no reduction in the federal budget, at all.

Still, this is a move by Congress towards some fiscal responsibility that will make NASA’s efforts more efficient. For that small improvement we should be grateful.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

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3 comments

  • Scott M.

    At least one good bit of news in the New Year!

  • Diane Wilson

    It doesn’t really look like freeing Clipper from SLS, since it depends on SLS being available. Space vehicles, especially those for deep space, have to be designed with the launch vehicle in mind; it affects weight limits, dimensions, fuel load for maneuvering, orbital mechanics in terms of flight duration and possible gravity assists closer to the sun, and probably much more. If SLS is available, it can provide a shorter and more direct path to Europa than any other rocket currently in service.

    The break with SLS needs to be explicit. Now.

  • Richard M

    Sadly, I don’t think Congress did this to save money. They refer explicitly in the legislative text to reports of torsional loading problems for Europa Clipper on the SLS as payload (from the solid rockets, apparently), and apparently NASA has reported to them that it’s a serious problem.

    Either way, a decision for a launcher has to be made *now*, as JPL and NASA complete the CDR, so Congress could not put off any change to the requirement any longer. So hopefully we will hear from NASA in the coming weeks that they’ve formally decided to launch Clipper on a Falcon Heavy.

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