NASA & Boeing have now agreed that the static fire test program of the core stage of their SLS rocket has ended successfully, and have begun preparing the stage for its shipment to Florida where it and the entire rocket will be assembled for launch.
While refurbishment activities continue, the team at Stennis has also started disconnecting the stage from the test stand to prepare for departure from Stennis. Weather will be a key factor in when the stage can be put on board the agency’s Pegasus barge to start the waterway tow trip from Stennis to Kennedy, but a late-April arrival at KSC is still possible — with KSC schedules currently forecasting attachment of the Core Stage to the SLS Boosters in the Vehicle Assembly Building in mid-May to prepare for launch of Artemis 1.
Though NASA still has a target of November for launch, NASA engineers estimate that it will take ten months to get the core stage in place and ready for launch. This places launch more likely in the February-March ’22 time frame. This schedule of course does not include any possible additional problems along the way, which may delay the launch further.
Even if all goes now as NASA plans, consider the length of this schedule. Though NASA will not require future SLS launches to do a static fire test, just transporting the stage and getting the rocket assembled will likely always take about this long, give or take a few months. Even if NASA streamlines this operation over time, I can’t see it getting shortened to less than five months. That means it will likely be impossible to launch more than one or maybe two SLS rockets per year, a pace that is not very effective if you really want to achieve anything in space. Moreover, that very very optimistic pace would cost about $3 to $5 billion per year, money that has not been appropriated, though considering Congress’s nonchalant attitude towards printing money these days that might not be a problem.
In the end, this rocket as designed is simply not practical or sustainable. It is a financial house of cards, and as soon as a more effective competitor like Starship (or even New Glenn) arrives that house will fall.
In fact, I still consider the odds of Starship/Super Heavy completing an orbital launch before SLS to be better than 50-50. With a likely spring ’22 SLS launch date and SpaceX aiming for a Starship orbital flight in ’21, the odds of SpaceX winning this race I think has just improved.
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