Sunday, November 17, 2013

Setting my alarm for 2021.

2021. Eight years from now.  If NASA can keep it on schedule, that's when the first human crew will be launched into space aboard NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) Block I launch vehicle.  The mission will essentially be a repeat of Apollo 8, whose capsule and crew orbited the Moon and returned to Earth in December of 1968 (a mere seven years after the first successful Mercury launch).

NASA formally announced the SLS in September of 2011, so they've already had two years to work on it... meaning a full decade from concept to launch.  And remember: it is based on mostly off-the-shelf technology.

Why should I be excited about the SLS?  Sure, if it were here today, we could launch people and equipment into Lunar orbit and beyond.  But eight more years? And that assumes no slips in the schedule.  We know how often that happens.  We are more likely to not see humans flying the SLS until 2023, if it hasn't been canceled.

In the meantime, the Dragon and the Falcon family of launchers will be human-rated (and possibly joined by launchers/spacecraft from other commercial suppliers).  And while SpaceX is busy ferrying people and supplies to the ISS on NASA's nickel, Elon Musk will be working toward loftier goals.  The next few years will be exciting times for space exploration, but other than an un-crewed test flight four years from now, the SLS will not play much of a part.

1st-graders filled with enthusiasm for the mighty SLS by NASA's educational and public outreach efforts?  They'll be paying speeding tickets before they will see a meaningful launch.

So I'm going to set an alarm for 2021, and then I'll consider getting excited about the SLS.

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