NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told a Senate committee on Wednesday the agency will consider using commercial rockets for its lunar crew test flight, opening the door for SpaceX to win a pair of potentially lucrative launch contracts.
"I think we should launch around the moon in June of 2020, and I think it can be done. We need to consider as an agency all options to accomplish that objective," Bridenstine said. "Some of those options would include launching the Orion crew capsule and the European service module on a commercial rocket."
Instead of the space agency's own SLS rocket, Bridenstine said NASA "could use two heavy-lift rockets" to send the two spacecrafts into orbit. Bridenstine also mentioned the "amazing capability that exists right now" in the U.S., and that means only two commercial possibilities: SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.
ULA, the joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, launched the first test flight of the Orion program on its Delta IV Heavy rocket in December 2014. Bridenstine pointed to that mission as an example of how NASA has leveraged commercial rockets successfully. But Delta IV Heavy comes at a steep price, at more than $350 million per launch. Additionally, ULA says Delta IV rockets require two to three years from order to launch. Whether or not the mission could launch on Delta IV Heavy is a "question of whether ULA has one ready," space policy consultant Jim Muncy told CNBC.