Mar 21, 2019 | Updated: 02:42 PM EDT

NASA to Fly Orion on Commercial

Mar 14, 2019 08:18 AM EDT

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WASHINGTON -- NASA is set to launch the Orion spacecraft on its first Space Launch System (SLS) on a commercial rocket to meet the target schedule for mid-2020.

During the hearing on March 13 of the Senate Commerce Committee, Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator said that the agency is currently contemplating on it and would decide in the next few weeks. They are looking into flying the Orion spacecraft and its European service module on a pair of vehicle launchers for commercial use.

Exploration Mission (EM) 1 as it was named was initially planned as the first flight of the SLS. However, several problems concerning the development of the launch vehicle have also pushed the mission back to its new launch date of mid-2020. Agency officials revealed that the scheduled date might slip again because of delays.

"The SLS project is struggling to meet the desired schedule of the agency," Bridenstine said as a response to the line of questions presented by the committee chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss). "We are now seeing how complex the project is that we are looking at adding more time."

Although the agency would like to stick with its commitment, he further added that "The agency also wants to make sure that it would be able to make the launch when they promised it. If we promise to make the launch by June 2020, we should stick to that and look into all possible ways we can make it happen."

That said, he concluded that the launching of the Orion spacecraft built for EM 1 on commercial vehicles is a relatively good option."This isn't the first time it's been done," he said. He is referring to the Exploration Flight Test 1 launched in December 2014. The Delta 4 Heavy launched the Orion spacecraft, along with its boilerplate service module. It was on a two-orbit mission around the Earth.

"There are good opportunities to launch the Orion spacecraft utilizing the available commercial capabilities. The Orion crew will be put in a capsule along with its European service module. They are expected to orbit around the moon by June 2020," he said. "This was the primary objective and the agency is looking at how we can accomplish such objective in time."

One of the challenges that NASA crew is facing is how the docking would be carried out. "At the moment, there are no commercial launch vehicles available to make this happen," Bridenstine further revealed upon questioning. "We don't have the capability to dock the Orion capsule with anything in space. So between now and June 2020, we have to make this plan a reality."

The decision on this alternative approach to the launch is set to be revealed in the coming weeks. He did not reveal how much this commercial launch would cost, but he exercised, "We might require a little help from the Congress."

"Everything is well within the realm of possibility. This alternative is something that we have to consider, just to make sure that we keep everything right on track," Bridenstine said.

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