New NASA Launch Platform Could Speed Up the SLS Rocket
While most of NASA's programs saw a bump in funding, what was perhaps most significant was an extra $350 million - which NASA didn't even ask for - to create an entirely new second launch platform for their Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the highly advanced rocket that could change the future of space travel if it wasn't constantly falling behind schedule.
While "new launch platform" may sound more dull than their off-world rovers and space probes, it's very important to the current SLS deep space rocket, which could one day carry humans to greet those off-world rovers and probes in person. It's unclear why specifically Congress put so much money toward a second platform, but there are a number of reasons why this could be beneficial.
We're sending a rocket to the Moon! Exploration Mission-1 will be the first test of NASA's deep space exploration systems: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket & the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center. https://t.co/RjJ3tMjxzU pic.twitter.com/sWgSEzFi6v— NASA Moon (@NASAMoon) March 13, 2018
Currently, NASA has a single launch platform designated for the SLS, but there are some bugs to work out - first off, the platform had to be modified as it wasn't designed for the SLS, it was designed for a scrapped rocket called the Ares 1, which would have taken humans back to the Moon more recently.
And due to that, the launch platform can only support a single launch of the SLS, and that first launch has to be a test launch (because no space mission would launch anything like that without tests). It would take up to three years to re-prepare the platform for a full rocket launch, which means valuable time would be lost.
Working with that single launch platform was the plan up until this week. NASA's de facto leader Robert Lightfoot, who's retiring at the end of next month without a clear successor, had asked for $300 million to build a second platform to avoid those three years of repairs, but budget proposals gave no indication that NASA would get the money.
The result is that the SLS rocket will get in the air even sooner than before once its test flight is done. NASA's plans are to land the SLS on asteroids and eventually Mars, before launching the rockets farther out to carry other scientific probes to farther destinations in less time.
Basically, if SpaceX doesn't get humans to Mars first on their BFR rocket, the SLS will likely be the spacecraft that finally does the job. The first unmanned test flight of the SLS is scheduled to happen next year, although there's a chance it could be pushed back to 2020 regardless of how many launch platforms NASA has.