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NASA SLS tank test
NASA engineers load a test article for the SLS liquid-oxygen tank into its test stand at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. (NASA Photo)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told lawmakers today that the first launch of the heavy-lift Space Launch System was “definitely achievable by 2021,” seemingly signaling a shift in the plan for a 2020 maiden launch.

Bridenstine’s testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation came just a day after he wrote in a blog post that NASA was “staying on schedule for flying the Artemis 1 mission with our Orion spacecraft on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket next year, and for sending the first crewed mission, Artemis 2, to the lunar vicinity by 2022.”

Artemis 1, previously known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, would launch an uncrewed Orion capsule on a test flight looping around the moon. Artemis 2 would trace a similar course with a crew on board, in preparation for sending two astronauts to the moon’s surface in 2024 via a yet-to-be-built Gateway space outpost in lunar orbit..

Today, Bridenstine said Artemis 2 was scheduled for the 2022-2023 time frame. He stuck with the 2024 date for the lunar landing.

Last week, Bridenstine announced that Bill Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator in charge of human exploration and operations, would be reassigned to an advisory role as part of a drive to accelerate progress on the Artemis program. Former astronaut Ken Bowersox would take Gerstenmaier’s place on an interim basis, Bridenstine said.

Eventually, new executives will be selected for the three top posts in NASA’s human spaceflight program, Bridenstine said last week.

Because of the turnover, Bridenstine declined to speculate on the precise schedule for SLS launches. “NASA has not been good at setting realistic budget and schedules, and we need to get better at that,” he told lawmakers. “So before we announce a new date, I want to be sure that we have a leadership team in place.”

NASA is under pressure to stick with the 2024 schedule, which was set in March by Vice President Mike Pence.

Pence, who chairs the White House’s National Space Council, is due to appear with Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins in Florida on Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the first crewed lunar landing. He’s sure to refer to the 2024 plan, which happens to mesh with President Donald Trump’s hopes for a significant space achievement during his second term in the White House.

Last month, the Government Accountability Office questioned whether Boeing and the other contractors for the SLS rocket could meet the schedule for a 2020 maiden launch, but Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg insisted at the time that the “first launch is next year.”

Today Ars Technica quoted an unnamed source as saying that if NASA sticks to its current plan for SLS development, the rocket wouldn’t be ready for launch until late 2021 — and that Congress would have to allocate more money to hit even that schedule.

When Pence set the five-year deadline in March, he said that “if our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones who will.” SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or Starship rocket, or Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, might rank among those options.

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