NASA caught many by surprise at a Senate hearing today when its administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested that the agency’s upcoming Moon mission might fly on a commercial rocket. Orion is NASA’s upcoming crew vehicle and its first flight, dubbed Exploration Mission-1, is scheduled for June 2020.
The first test has been planned as an uncrewed test. It will involve sending the crew vehicle around the Moon for six days while the total mission duration will be around three weeks. It was previously believed that this mission would mark the debut of the Space Launch System or SLS, NASA’s heavy lift rocket.
However, due to the ongoing production and cost overrun issues with the SLS program, the EM-1’s launch date has already been pushed back multiple times. So in order to have some progress on the Moon mission by next year, the administration now appears to be willing to send the mission up on a commercial rocket.
A firm decision has not yet been made, though, and it will be decided in the next few weeks whether or not Exploration Mission-1 will indeed be launched with a commercial operator. The only two heavy lift rockets operating currently that are capable of supporting this missile are the Falcon Heavy from SpaceX and the ULA’s Delta IV Heavy.