During recent hearings about the state of the development of NASA space exploration systems before the House Science Committee, chairperson Rep, Lamar Smith, R-Texas issued a warning that Congress is beginning to lose patience with delays of the first flight of the Space Launch System. He warned that commercial alternatives being developed by SpaceX and Blue Origin are starting to look more attractive. Ars Technica speculates that Smith, who is retiring after his current term, may feel freer to speak out about such matters.

Exploration Mission One now slated for June 2020

The development of the space launch system and the Orion spacecraft has been fraught with delays due to unexpected technical difficulties. The first flight of the SLS, known as Exploration Mission One (EM-1) has faced continued delays, with an official target date of December 2019 but a probable date of June 2020. Chairman Smith expressed the growing frustration is with some in Congress when he said, in his opening statement, “NASA and the contractors should not assume future delays and cost overruns will have no consequences. If delays continue, if costs rise and if foreseeable technical challenges arise, no one should assume the U.S. taxpayers or their representatives will tolerate this.” Smith also mentioned that commercial alternatives such as the Falcon Heavy from SpaceX and the New Glenn from Blue Origin are starting to look more attractive.

However, the Falcon Heavy has faced delays as well

To be fair to NASA, the Falcon Heavy has faced delays as well. Initially, SpaceX’s heavy-lift rocket was supposed to roar from the launch pad in 2013. However, unexpected technical challenges have delayed that first flight to December 2017 at the earliest. Rocket science as a synonym for something that is very difficult applies to nimble commercial companies such as SpaceX as much as it does stodgy old NASA.

Blue Origin’s New Glenn is still slated for 2020.

About a year ago, SpaceX’s Elon Musk announced that he intends to launch a crewed Dragon spacecraft, specially equipped with heat shields, with two paying customers around the moon by 2018. The Falcon Heavy will have to have a successful flight along with crewed Falcons to the International Space Station before that flight happens.

However, if it takes place before NASA can launch the SLS, the space agency will have some explaining to do.

One idea that seems to have been abandoned even by SLS critics is the one that involves existing launch vehicles and orbiting fuel depots. The problem of maintaining a flight rate necessary to maintain a Deep Space Exploration program under that approach has proven to be insurmountable. Also, the difficulty of storing propellant in low Earth orbit is not insignificant. The prospect of not one but at least two Heavy Lift vehicles from the commercial sector has pretty much buried the idea of fuel depots, at least until sources are developed from lunar water.