The acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA, Ken Bowersox, said that current schedules calling for a late 2020 first launch of SLS are "very, very aggressive" that that the launch may slip well into 2021. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — A top NASA official said Feb. 28 he expects the first flight of the Space Launch System to take place in the second half of 2021, a later date than prior agency statements.

Speaking at the kickoff meeting of the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk said that all of the elements needed for the Artemis 3 2024 human lunar landing are either under development or will soon be under contract.

That includes the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft. The SLS core stage for the Artemis 1 uncrewed test flight is currently at the Stennis Space Center for a “Green Run” static-fire test scheduled for later this year, while the Orion spacecraft for that mission is wrapping up testing at NASA’s Plum Brook Station.

The SLS core stage, he said, should arrive at the Kennedy Space Center in late summer or early fall, allowing teams to begin “integrating for a launch hopefully in the mid ’21 timeframe, mid to late ’21 timeframe for Artemis 1.”

NASA has yet to provide a new formal launch date for that mission, which has slipped by several years. In December, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that launch would take place in 2021 after the agency had been holding on a November 2020 launch. Doug Loverro, the agency’s new associate administrator for human exploration and operations, commissioned a review of NASA’s exploration plans when he started work in December, including setting a new date for Artemis 1. The outcome of that review should be released in the coming weeks.

Jurczyk said NASA is moving ahead with other elements of its exploration plan, including development of modules and related systems for the lunar Gateway. NASA is in negotiations with Northrop Grumman for a contract for the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module, after the agency announced last summer its intent to sole-source the module with that company. He added that the agency is “getting ready to award” a contract for Gateway logistics services, a cargo delivery service similar to the International Space Station’s commercial cargo program.

What’s left to award are study contracts for the Human Landing System program. NASA is expected to issue several such contracts for initial studies of commercially developed lunar landers for carrying astronauts to the lunar surface and back, and later select one or two companies to proceed in full development.

“We’ve very close to awarding, most likely, multiple contracts,” he said. Those awards will come “within weeks,” he added. That’s in line with a Feb. 10 procurement update from NASA, which projected making awards in late March or early April.

The next nine to 12 months, he said, “will be critical to nail down the requirements and get to a preliminary design review,” he said of that program. He noted later in his talk that NASA plans to gets those lunar lander requirements finalized with companies that win awards within 90 days. Companies can either elect to use NASA technical standards or offer an equivalent alternative. “But after 90 days, if we can’t get agreement, you’re going to use ours.”

Jurczyk said NASA is not neglecting planning for the second, “sustainable,” phase of the Artemis program for missions after Artemis 3. He said he was in a four-hour “pre-acquisition strategy meeting” the previous day to discuss what centers would lead various elements of that second phase of Artemis, and what would be developed in-house at NASA versus outside the agency.

Details about those plans, he said, should be released within a month. “If I was here a month from now, I would be doing that presentation on the current plan for Artemis phase 2.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...