On a cold night in early December 2017, I met a couple of industry sources at a southeast Houston restaurant called Nobi. Located just down the street from the Johnson Space Center, Nobi serves Vietnamese cuisine and has an amazing array of beers on tap. we participate
These space industry figures are not well known outside of the business, but they are highly informed and astute observers of spaceflight. And perhaps most importantly to me as a reporter, they were particularly candid in this environment.
They were in town for a space conference, so we gossiped, chatted, and talked about work. Deep in our cups, speculation turned to NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. When, I asked him, do you really think the big rocket will be launched?
One of these sources responded with a startling prediction. “Probably around 2023,” she said.
At the time, NASA was planning a launch date for 2019 for the rocket, only two years from now. The hardware was almost finished. So a prediction of six years of remaining work seemed rather off the mark. But I was a little drunk, and what is Twitter for if not to joke around a little? So I grabbed my phone and tweeted his prediction:
An unbiased industry source blurted out tonight that the first SLS release will likely come around 2023.
—Eric Berger (@SciGuySpace) December 5, 2017
The prediction didn’t attract as much attention at the time, and was largely dismissed as a bad joke. But over the years, in certain corners of the web, this tweet has become something of an internet legend, a wild prediction that just might come true.
It has also drawn the ire of supporters of NASA’s big rocket. In 2020, the r/SpaceLaunchSystem subreddit i discovered the tweet, and some readers were downright angry. User “insane_gravy” wrote: “Eric Berger proves once again that anyone can be a space ‘journalist’ because there are no standards.” Well I hope insane_gravy Really he likes the sauce because the launch of the Space Launch System rocket and its Artemis I mission is now scheduled for Wednesday, just eight days before Thanksgiving.
Although it seems unlikely, the source has been proven correct. Since we’re less than two months into the new year, it’s already “around” 2023. Also, fiscal year 2023 started five weeks ago.
a second prediction
Three years later, in October 2020, this same source made another statement so outlandish that I decided to tweet about it again. The prediction concerned NASA’s upcoming decision on a contractor to build a “Human Landing System” to take its astronauts to the Moon as part of the Artemis Program.
At the time, SpaceX, a “National Team” led by Blue Origin, and a third bidder led by Dynetics were all vying for one or two NASA contracts. Conventional thinking in the space industry was that Blue Origin would win the prime contract, as it led a team of traditional and new aerospace companies and proposed a design tailored to NASA specifications. It was thought that maybe Dynetics or SpaceX would get a secondary contract.
Far from proposing a conventional lunar lander, SpaceX wanted to use its massive Starship vehicle as a lunar lander. This option was somewhat ruled out by the space industry because Starship was an experimental and risky approach. There was also concern that if NASA selected SpaceX, it would put Starship on the critical path for the Artemis Moon Program. This meant that for the Artemis Program to be successful, Starship had to work. And if Starship worked, it would mean that NASA had funded a rocket that was better than its own expendable and expensive Space Launch System rocket.
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