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NASA finally admits the first flight of its new monster rocket won’t happen next year

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Expect a 2019 launch date at the earliest

A rendering of NASA’s future Space Launch System.
Photo: NASA

Numerous government reports have predicted that NASA’s next big rocket, the Space Launch System, won’t be ready in time for its first launch in 2018 — and now months of speculation have finally become reality. NASA is going to push back the vehicle’s inaugural flight, potentially to some time in 2019, according to one of the agency’s top officials. It’s another major delay for NASA’s human exploration program, aimed at sending astronauts into deep space and on to Mars.

The delay was confirmed today by NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for human exploration and operations. He detailed the decision in a written response to the Government Accountability Office, which just did an audit of NASA’s current human exploration plans. The audit report simply confirmed what numerous other audits have predicted: NASA just doesn’t have enough time and money to pull off a flight in November 2018, and there are a number of other technical challenges that stand in the way, too. So the GAO recommended that NASA tell Congress whether or not an SLS launch in 2018 could happen. And the space agency is finally admitting that it can’t meet that goal.

Currently, NASA is working on three different programs needed to support the first flight of the SLS. Along with building the rocket, the agency is also building a crew capsule called Orion, which will ride on top of the SLS. Meanwhile, it’s updating some of the infrastructure on the ground at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, to facilitate SLS flights. The GAO report found that all three of these programs — SLS, Orion, and the ground systems — just won’t be ready by 2018, each for unique reasons. The schedules for the programs are also incredibly tight, so there would be very little room for error in order to make the launch happen next year.

Gerstenmaier says that NASA will try to come up with some answers about a new schedule in September. However, that process may be complicated, he says, since there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the production of the SLS. For now, the first flight of the SLS is supposed to be uncrewed, followed by a crewed mission no earlier than 2021. But a couple of months ago, NASA said it was looking into the possibility of putting people on the maiden mission of the SLS. No formal decision has been made yet, but if NASA does move forward with this new plan, it’ll likely mess with the schedule even further, and a lot more money will be required to do the flight safely.

Meanwhile, NASA still isn’t sure how drastically its human exploration plans will change under the new administration. President Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2018 didn’t call for any major changes to SLS or Orion, but NASA’s official annual budget won’t be formalized until later this year. And Congress could step in and make some drastic alterations to NASA’s plans. Plus, Vice President Mike Pence will soon be put in charge of a new National Space Council, which will be tasked with making recommendations for America’s agenda in space. The Council’s suggestions may further complicate the SLS and Orion programs.

But for now, one thing is certain: the SLS is not flying next year.