This is not the time to abandon NASA's Space Launch System

Last December, China became the first nation to land on the far side of the Moon. China intends to launch a lunar sample return mission later this year. Israel’s Beresheet probe failed during an attempted lunar landing on April 11, but the mission made Israel the seventh nation to put a spacecraft into lunar orbit.

The Trump administration has turned up the heat on NASA to return humans to the moon. On March 26, Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceJuan Williams: Buttigieg already making history Pence: Mueller report confirms 'no collusion, no obstruction' Melania Trump, Karen Pence say they're ready to serve four more years in White House MORE, in his role as chairman of the National Space Council, declared that the U.S. space program is in a race, not only against the Chinese and Russians, but also against “our worst enemy: complacency.” Pence directed NASA to return American astronauts to the surface of the moon by 2024, four years ahead of NASA’s current schedule.

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It’s an audacious goal and a laudable one. And its achievement will require creative thinking and a departure from “business as usual.” But using this challenge as an excuse to abandon technologies that are already close to fruition will unreasonably increase risk, both to our astronauts and to the investment in our future in space. 

NASA’s heavy lift Space Launch System (SLS) is the cornerstone of America’s strategy for returning to the moon. SLS has been unfairly derided because of its complexity and cost. It’s also behind schedule. Meanwhile, SpaceX has been capturing headlines with its second successful Falcon Heavy launch, this time putting a communications satellite into Earth orbit. Critics point to Falcon Heavy as the best option for reaching the moon now, but its payload capacity is about half that of the smallest SLS configuration. 

The Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle is being developed to fly NASA’s long-duration lunar missions. (The commercial spacecraft in development—SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner—are only capable of short-duration, Earth orbital missions.) The SLS is the only launch vehicle with the capacity to send Orion to the moon.

NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineThis is not the time to abandon NASA's Space Launch System Can America return to the moon by 2024? Why NASA announced and then canceled an all-woman spacewalk MORE briefly discussed the possibility of launching Orion aboard a Falcon Heavy for a lunar orbital mission by 2020 if the SLS was not ready by then. This would involve launching the Orion into low-Earth orbit with one Falcon Heavy, launching a boost stage into Earth orbit with a second Falcon Heavy, and then somehow mating the Orion and the booster and sending them on to the moon.

Nothing like this has ever been attempted, and so it’s difficult to estimate the complexity or cost of the process — and totally unrealistic to expect contractors to figure it all out in a year. Within two weeks of floating the idea, Bridenstine rightly recommitted to the SLS as America’s path to the moon.

Sustainability is another crucial consideration. Cobbling together technologies for expedience will not support our long-term presence on the moon. It would be an unspeakable tragedy for the U.S. to repeat the biggest mistake of the Apollo program — to commit national resources to achieving an expensive and important goal and then throwing it all away once the political purpose has been served.

Every phase of human spaceflight, from testing to launch to landing, puts crews in harm’s way. Intricate spacecraft fly on explosive boosters and operate in the most unforgiving regimes imaginable. Every shortcut in design and testing increases risk dramatically. The crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia paid with their lives because NASA succumbed to schedule pressure and made bad decisions.

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NASA tried the “faster-better-cheaper” approach on its unmanned interplanetary missions in the 1990s, with decidedly mixed results. Some missions succeeded, but others failed spectacularly. Those are unacceptable odds when humans are on board the spacecraft.

This is not the time to abandon technologies that are close to completion. The SLS currently remains the best available alternative for a safe and sustainable return to the moon. We need to continue to support its development, while also building other capabilities so that we have a variety of options available.

Jonathan Ward is a space historian and freelance author. His most recent book is “Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew.”