Published: Sat, May 13, 2017
Research | By Francis Brooks

NASA nixes crew for test flight of new megarocket in 2019

NASA nixes crew for test flight of new megarocket in 2019

NASA determined it is technically capable of launching crew on EM-1, but after evaluating cost, risk and technical factors in a project of this magnitude, it would be hard to accommodate changes needed to add crew at this point in mission planning. The first launch had been targeted for next year, but is now off until 2019.

The decision to delay the Orion test flights was made in partnership with the White House, NASA officials said.

EM-1 is the first in a broad series of exploration missions that will take humans to deep space, and eventually to Mars.

Lightfoot emphasized, "the White House has been very supportive of our plan", and that based on the study's findings, NASA and the White House made the latest EM-1 decisions "together".

"Any time you are trying to rapidly add capabilities, you are asking for trouble in a system like this", said Casey Dreier, director of space policy at The Planetary Society, which lobbies for greater funding of space science and exploration.

Rockets in the early years of space flight were unreliable in test phases and sometimes blew up on the pad or shortly after liftoff.

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And there would be additional technical risk and likely delays to accelerate software development and to retrofit the EM-1 Orion capsule to support a two-person crew. A second flight with crew, called EM-2, is scheduled as an eight-day journey around the moon in 2021, although industry observers expect that time frame to slip.

Lightfoot said in press conference today that putting a crew on the first flight of the SLS was technically feasible.

"EM-1 will go to a distant retrograde orbit around the moon", said William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of NASA's Human Explorations and Operations. More generally, he argued that NASA and its industry team have already completed "phenomenal" work both on SLS and Orion and are making good progress building a complex system.

During a conversation recently with astronauts aboard the International Space Station, Trump said he wanted to send astronauts to Mars in his first term, or by the end of his second term "at worst" - but the manner of his comment suggested that he was either joking or simply was speaking off the cuff with minimal grasp of the technical challenges of a Mars mission. The agency has had some setbacks, including a tornado that seriously damaged the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in February. "We knew both of those had to be there, because we had certain components that just were not there". We're creating an incredible capability for this country - one from which future generations will continue to benefit - and we need to get it right now for the long term.

The megarocket represents a robust foundation for ultimately moving human presence out into the solar system, Gerstenmaier said. That upper stage is not now human rated.

NASA has always been working toward an uncrewed first mission for the SLS, so inserting a crew at this stage in the game seemed at best, slightly reckless.

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