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NASA's Big Rocket Faces Uncertain Future

The SLS, Orion atop, lifting off in this artist's concept. What happens to this rocket under the new administration? Photo: NASA
The SLS, Orion atop, lifting off in this artist's concept. What happens to this rocket under the new administration? Photo: NASA

NASA’s Space Launch System is the agency’s next big rocket, slated to take astronauts into deep space. But budget concerns and a presidential election have some fearing for the program. 90.7's Brendan Byrne spoke with Crytal Chavez about the rocket's future.

CHAVEZ: Brendan, first can you tell me about the Space Launch System. What is it?

BYRNE: Well, the Space Launch System, or SLS, is a new rocket for NASA that will have the power to take humans and cargo outside of Earth’s orbit to places like asteroids and mars. And it’s MASSIVE. The SLS can carry 70 metric tons – so it’s classified as heavy lift. Compare that to the space shuttle, which could get about 27 metric tons to orbit. So an analogy – the shuttle is like a cargo van, where SLS is a big rig.

CHAVEZ: And this is the rocket that will take people to Mars?

BYRNE: That’s the plan. But it will happen in steps. The SLS will send an uncrewed capsule to the moon around 2018. It will orbit the moon and come back home. It’s a critical test for the rocket, and the capsule, that will take humans outside of Earth’s orbit for the first time since 1972.

CHAVEZ: Well that sounds exciting for NASA, what’s the problem?

BYRNE: Funding. It’s always about money, right? NASA is getting exactly what it wanted from Congress in 2016 – $19 billion – and let me add that $2 billion of that is going specifically to SLS. Administrators are concerned that there isn’t a clear plan for the rocket. NASA wants to use the rocket to transport all kinds of equipment into space but they don’t have the money for it. NASA Spaceflight dot com reported this problem earlier this week – if there’s nothing to launch into space, will Washington, D.C. continue to fund the rocket.

CHAVEZ: How important is this rocket to Central Florida?

BYRNE: It’s a big deal. Here’s Space Florida’s Dale Ketcham explaining:

DALE KETCHAM: It’s the primary bill payer. It is the program that cover’s the overhead cost for the vast majority of what occurs at Kennedy Space Center.

BYRNE: Having the SLS program cover those operating costs is helping Kennedy Space Center transform into a multi-use spaceport for commercial flights. Ketcham tells me that’s critical to keeping Kennedy Space Center running.

CHAVEZ: So the program is vital to Kennedy Space Center. There’s a Presidential election around the corner, is this rocket on candidates’ radar?

BYRNE: Well Dale Ketcham says it needs to be. The next President’s vision for the space program outlines the budget. For the program to keep getting ths funding it needs, the next President needs to be on board. Here’s Space Florida’s Ketcham again:
KETCHAM: What this story does is further highlight the imperative for us to secure from the presidential candidates what is their vision for US leadership in space. In Florida, we’ve worked to engage the candidates in the last few cycles, with considerable success, and we’ll no doubt do so again this year.

BYRNE: Ketcham says Space Florida is working with counterparts in Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado – they all have a stake in this rocket. Those states, including Florida, have a large chunk of the Electoral College votes, so Ketcham hopes space funding is on the candidates’ priority list.

CHAVEZ: You mentioned commercial space, but this SLS rocket is a NASA program. What role to private companies play in this?

BYRNE: Well, they could be the competition. One way SLS could pay for itself is launching payloads for commercial companies or the military. But SpaceX recently demonstrated it could land a booster and. And they’re developing their own heavy lift rocket – called Falcon Heavy -- that will reuse its boosters and that could lower the cost – which means they could launch into deep space for a better price. I spoke with NASA’s Deputy Administrator Dava Newman. She’s said she’s not concerned with competition.

DAVA NEWMAN: No one can do heavy lift right now. We’re making all the developments and NASA is the only one who has done heavy lift before, excluding other international folks, and it’s all good.

BYRNE: Newman says commercial companies are partners, not competitors. SpaceX aims to demonstrate the Falcon Heavy this spring.

CHAVEZ: Lot’s to keep an eye out this year at Kennedy Space Center. Thanks for joining us, Brendan.

BYRNE: My pleasure.

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration.