NASA's new heavy-lift rocket will not get off the ground until December 2019 at the earliest, and its maiden flight could also get delayed to the middle of 2020, the space agency announced Wednesday.
The rocket known as the Space Launch System would succeed the Saturn 5 that took astronauts to the moon over four decades ago. According to NASA it plans to use the vehicle to take astronauts not only to the moon, one of the goals of the Trump administration but to Mars, some day.
NASA acknowledged earlier this year that it would not be able to make the previously announced launch date of November 2018 for the first flight, which will not carry any astronauts.
Though the completed review indicates a launch date of June 2020, NASA said it might be possible to advance the launch date by six months.
''This earlier launch date is reasonable and challenges the teams to stay focused on tasks without creating undue pressure,'' William H Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at a hearing of the House space subcommittee yesterday.
''Furthermore, NASA is taking additional steps to reduce schedule risks for both known and unknown issues and protect for the earliest possible launch date.''
"NASA and the contractors should not assume future delays and cost overruns will have no consequence," Texas GOP representative Lamar Smith warned at a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing Thursday on NASA's exploration systems. "If delays continue, if costs rise and if foreseeable technical challenges arise, no one should assume the US taxpayers or their representatives will tolerate this."
According to NASA officials the latest delay could be attributed to several factors including problems with manufacturing and supplying Orion's first European service module, tornado damage at the agency's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, and "challenges related to building the core stage of the world's most powerful rocket for the first time."