Source: NASA

NASA Rejects Idea of Humans on First Flight of New Rocket

Money, risks, and schedule weighed against the audacious effort.

NASA won’t fly humans on its first launch of the Space Launch System, the largest rocket in the agency’s history. While technically possible, the effort would have required as much as $900 million in new funding and pushed the first flight’s schedule to as late as June 2020, NASA officials said Friday.

NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot Jr., requested the study in mid-February amid the Trump administration’s stated desire to hasten America’s return to space. An internal group determined relatively quickly that changing the existing strategy would be technically feasible but result in the need for hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding and disrupt schedules for the SLS rocket and the new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

“Probably the best plan we have is the plan we’re on right now,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate.

A rendering of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

Source: NASA

The agency’s current schedule calls for the initial, unmanned SLS-Orion flight to occur in 2019. NASA plans to refine its schedule over the coming weeks to put new dates on both the first unmanned flight, dubbed EM-1, and the second flight with crew, called EM-2, which had been targeted for August 2021.

Adding humans to the first flight—essentially collapsing the requirements of both missions into one—would also have resulted in higher risks and could have affected future schedules for NASA’s ultimate goal of one day landing astronauts on Mars.

The SLS program is the centerpiece of NASA’s effort to send humans deeper into the solar system, starting with the first manned mission beyond Earth orbit in a half century. The SLS is similar in size to the Saturn V rockets used in the Apollo program but generate far more thrust. 

NASA has been struggling with delays and development problems on both Orion and the behemoth SLS, initially scheduled to fly last year. That mission was later moved to November 2018, although a Government Accountability Office report (PDF) issued last month found that date unrealistic.

On Friday, NASA officials cited a February tornado in New Orleans that struck the Michoud Assembly Facility as one reason for delays on the rocket and Orion. “The tornado was very unfortunate to us, and that really set us back in a big way,” Gerstenmaier said. A liquid oxygen tank for the rocket also suffered “significant” damage this month during a work mishap. The tank is beyond repair, but officials said Friday that two others are available.

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