The large communications satellite currently under the payload shell of SpaceX’s second Falcon Heavy spacecraft may seem like … another large communications satellite. Because it is. But this definitely isn’t a routine launch. What happens next could reset NASA’s future plans, including its plans to return humans to the Moon.
The launch was delayed from Wednesday due to overly strong high altitude winds. But things are looking better in advance of a launch on Thursday evening. On top of the 27 Merlin engines mounted on the three different boosters that make up the Falcon Heavy is the Arabsat 6A satellite that’s designed to bring communications bandwidth for the Middle East.
However, what makes this mission so critical is a matter of timing—in particular, a lack of it.
NASA has already completed and conducted a test flight of it’s crew-capable Orion capsule, but the rocket that is supposed to take Orion to the Moon, and possibly beyond, is running behind schedule. Delays in NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) have left NASA struggling to meet what seems like an almost impossible timeline for getting humans back to the Moon by 2024. With continued worries that SLS will be ready in time, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has been talking up the possibility that Orion might catch a ride to the Moon on Falcon Heavy. And if that goes well … maybe there never will be an SLS.
That possibility seemed to be reinforce on Thursday when NASA Goddard tweeted a mock-up of the Large UV Optical Infrared (LUVIOR) telescope flying on SpaceX’s next generation “Starship” rather than on the SLS.
SpaceX recently completed the first test flight of its crew-rated Dragon capsule, and the first crewed flight of that system is expected some time in the fall. But that capsule flies on top of SpaceX workhorse Falcon 9. If the Falcon Heavy is going to be crew-rated in time to be flying people in the next couple of years, it’s going to need a lot of success in a very short period—starting today.