The anatomy of a delay: Here's a timeline of twists and turns for NASA's SLS and Orion programs
On Friday, NASA announced it would not fly astronauts during the Space Launch System's maiden mission, ending a short-lived consideration to repeat the space shuttle's bold 1981 test flight. At the same time, agency officials confirmed what we already knew: SLS and Orion will not be ready to fly in 2018 as previously scheduled. The flight will instead occur in 2019, but no firm date has been scheduled. That's a cumulative slip of up to two years since the rocket was unveiled in 2011.
Though the rocket has yet to leave the pad, it's been a wild ride for what will eventually become NASA's first new crew vehicle in almost four decades. Last year, we chronicled the story of SLS and Orion in our Horizon Goal series, and checked in on the programs' development during our 10-day Rocket Road Trip through the Southern U.S. For this latest addition to the story, I compiled a timeline of the major twists and turns SLS and Orion have taken as they attempt to send humans beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since 1972.
NASA / Paul E. Alers
Introducing a monster rocket
Members of Congress and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden unveil the Space Launch System design in September 2011. From left: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison R-Texas, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., Administrator Bolden.
October 11, 2010
President Obama signs the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 into law. The bill directs NASA to create the Space Launch System, an Ares V-like rocket with an initial capability of 70 tons, increasing to 130 tons after future upgrades. An operational date for the core vehicle is requested for December 31, 2016.
September 14, 2011
On Capitol Hill, Florida Congressman Bill Nelson reveals the design of the Space Launch System. "We're about to—the administrator of NASA, Charlie Bolden, is about to—announce the most powerful rocket in history," said Nelson, as Bolden waited for his turn to speak. Bill Gerstenmaier, then the director of NASA's space operations directorate, said a test flight would occur at the end of 2017. Internal and external audits estimated a development cost of $18 billion through that mission, including Orion and ground systems infrastructure.
January 16, 2013
NASA announces the European Space Agency will provide Orion's service module, which provides the capsule with power and propulsion. Later that year, reports surface that the service module is facing mass challenges and other technical problems. But in January 2014, ESA insists the module will be ready for the first flight in 2017.
August 27, 2014
NASA announces SLS has passed its KDP-C milestone, which locks in a baseline launch date of no later than November 2018. The agency says it will continue to work toward a launch date of December 2017.
September 12, 2014
At the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Vertical Assembly Center, which is used to weld SLS fuel tanks, opens for business. But a tower misalignment is soon discovered, prompting repairs and contributing to an internal SLS launch date slip from December 2017 to July 2018.
Jason Davis / The Planetary Society
Orion stands alone
NASA's Orion spacecraft sits atop its Delta IV Heavy rocket following the rollback of the vehicle's mobile service tower.
December 5, 2014
The first Orion spacecraft completes a successful four-and-a-half hour test flight atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. Around the same time, NASA and ESA officials report continuing challenges with the Orion service module mean the capsule will not be ready in 2017 as previously hoped.