NASA: Plan to send US back to the moon may be delayed without private rockets

NASA: Plan to send US back to the moon may be delayed without private rockets

A new rocket design under production by NASA won't be ready for a scheduled June 2020 launch, the agency's administrator told Congress on Wednesday.

Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineFrom Apollo 11 to Artemis: This time when we go back to the moon, we are going to stay Trump meets with Apollo 11 astronauts to mark moon landing anniversary Trump's NASA administrator talks efforts to return to Moon MORE told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that a mission to send an unmanned capsule around the moon next year, a three-week test flight for a manned mission planned for 2023, may need to be delayed unless the agency decides to go with privately owned rockets for the launch.

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The NASA chief said the agency will decide over the next few weeks whether to delay the planned 2020 test flight and use a NASA rocket or whether to continue with the scheduled launch date but switch to commercially produced rockets.

The mission would require two rockets — one for the initial launch, and one to launch a second stage which the Orion spacecraft would dock with upon reaching Earth's orbit.

At issue is the Orion crew capsule's capabilities. The capsule is reportedly not currently capable of docking with a second stage in orbit, and would require outfitting to do so in order to continue with a 2020 launch. Bridenstine told the Senate panel that doing so would likely require more congressional funding.

The 2020 mission plans to send an unmanned crew capsule, the Orion, around the moon before returning it to Earth. If successful, a second mission set for 2023 would perform the same flight with a small crew.

The committee's chairman indicated to Bridenstine that he wants to keep NASA on schedule, a notion Bridenstine agreed with.

“This is 2019,” Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerTrump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand FAA nominee advances to full Senate vote Senate GOP raises concerns about White House stopgap plan to avoid shutdown MORE (R-Miss.) told Bridenstine. 

“I want to be clear: NASA has a history of not meeting launch dates, and I’m trying to change that,” Bridenstine said.

“I’d sure like to keep us on schedule,” Wicker added before finishing his questioning.

NASA currently uses private space flight companies such as SpaceX to make deliveries to the International Space Station. SpaceX is currently working on a capsule that could transport crew to the station, which is reportedly set to enter operation this summer.