NASA: We need commercial rockets! SLS: Oh no you don't!

Panto season comes early as the commercial threat focuses the minds of managers

NASA's SLS on the mobile launcher

As NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) continued to cry out for its own variant of the "Distracted Boyfriend" meme, Russia showed the US space agency how to do delays properly.

SLS: So yeah – we can make that date. You don't need your commercial chums

After NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine's surprising announcement to the effect that, hey, if you say June 2020, you've got to actually launch on June 2020 or we'll buy our rockets from someone that can, the SLS programme blinked and said "OK".

Funny that.

While the determination of the SLS programme to get itself back on track is to be lauded, it is also important to remember that NASA has history when it comes to racing to meet arbitrary deadlines.

Although June 2020's launch will not carry a crew, many will remember incidents attributed at least partially to the need to meet deadlines.

In a blog that is still difficult to read, former NASA manager and flight director Wayne Hale described the events leading up to the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia, including the contribution of schedule pressure.

Getting the US section of the International Space Station to "core complete" was key. Damningly, Hale stated: "Standing down to contemplate safety was not a 'requirement'."

Bridenstine may have won this round of rocket-based chicken. But it will be up to NASA's inspectors to get to the bottom of what the SLS programme has to do in order to meet that June 2020 deadline.

ISS set to grow again

The hugely delayed Russian Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM) looks like it might actually make it to the ISS before the orbital outpost is sent to its watery retirement home in the next decade.

Dubbed "Nauka", the module will serve as a research module for Russia, once attached to the Russian segment of the ISS.

Nauka is due to be transported to RSC Energia in August this year ahead of a launch to the ISS atop a Russian Proton rocket in 2020. Maybe.

The module, which was originally constructed as a backup for the core ISS Zarya FGB module back in the 1990s has had a troubled history. In 2004, a proposal was made to convert the unfinished module into the MLM, and the cash-strapped Russian space agency scheduled the launch for 2009.

Unsurprisingly, the schedule continued to face delays as progress remained in lockstep with the passing of time. Contamination within the propulsion system led to the module failing acceptance testing and the launch being postponed until 2015.

As the launch date continued to slip, there was some speculation that the MLM could be repurposed once more, to serve as an independent Russian space station in a post ISS landscape. However, with last week's news, it seems that after more than a decade of delays, Russia's new lab will finally be docked to the ISS.

A 'last' for United Launch Alliance

United Launch Alliance's Delta IV lit up the Florida sky with a night launch from Cape Canaveral, carrying a communications satellite for the US Air Force into orbit.

The rocket used was the Delta IV Medium+ (5,4), with Friday's lift-off being the last for that particular variant. It included a 5m fairing for the payload and four small solid rocket boosters to supplement the thrust from the single RS-68A engine of the first stage.

Lift-off occurred at 00:26 UTC on 16 March, with 1.7 million pounds of thrust carrying the Air Force payload to orbit. The first stage was dumped into the Atlantic ocean after nearly four minutes of powered flight, leaving the RL10B-2 engine of the second stage to send the WGS-10 satellite into its transfer orbit.

ULA battled various technical issues with the rocket and tracking network before finally getting the thing off the ground. It has launched all 10 satellites for the US Air Force's Wideband Global SATCOM system, with all eight flights of this particular Delta IV configuration used to send up WGS satellites. ®

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