Hot on heels of President Trump’s directive, NASA announced it has begun assessing feasibility of sending astronauts to the moon as early as 2019, well ahead of its original timeline of 2021.
NASA said it is investigating changes to be made to Exploration Mission -1 (EM-1), the first phase of an initiative that aims to send men eventually to Mars. These changes include hastening of critical ascent abort testing for the Orion spacecraft, which was flight tested in 2014. The Space Launch System (SLS) which will take Orion to space is under works. According to NASA’s existing timeline, the mission to the moon would not happen before 2021.
That, however, is set for change after a directive from President Trump’s administration, as the Daily Mail, reports. NASA was asked to put astronauts on the Orion before the 2021 flight to the moon. The space agency announced last month it would undertake a feasibility study after, and revealed last Saturday the exercise is underway.
“The assessment is evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of this concept with regards to short- and long-term goals of achieving deep space exploration capabilities for the nation. It will assume launching two crew members in mid-2019, and consider adjustments to the current EM-1 mission profile.”
For EM-1, NASA’s plan is to do an unmanned mission to the moon by November, 2018, before it can send astronauts into space using novel technology as part of EM-2 in 2021. NASA maintains it will proceed with existing plans if the feasibility assessment is not encouraging.
“Our priority is to ensure the safe and effective execution of all our planned exploration missions with the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration Program. “This is an assessment and not a decision as the primary mission for EM-1 remains an uncrewed flight test.”
NASA also said it will maintain Interim Cryogenic Propulsion stage or ICPS for EM-1 that is just enough to send Orion for a spin around the moon. The crew feasibility study is expected to be completed in a month, even as brisk progress is being reported.
As the Washington Post noted, NASA is aware of the increased risk involved in manned moon missions. While Gerstenmaier reportedly explained to reporters the benefits of an on-board crew for rigorous testing of systems, NASA’s deputy associate administrator William Hill said the testing of systems in such a manner would ideally be done without a crew.
“In the last month, major construction was completed on the largest new SLS structural test stand. In a lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, engineers simulated conditions that astronauts in spacesuits would experience when the Orion spacecraft is vibrating during launch on its way to deep space destinations to assess how well the crew can interact with the displays and controls they will use to monitor Orion’s systems and operate the spacecraft when necessary.”
The Post noted NASA’s uncertainties given that President Trump has not appointed a chief for the space agency, which is currently being headed by a civil servant in acting director Robert Lightfoot. It was further reported that Trump’s plans of doing something bold in space, rivaling the Apollo moon missions with a second term in view, may see NASA work with private space agencies. While Trump’s plans need convincing in Congress, which has imposed budget cuts on NASA, it could potentially save taxpayers billions of dollars by rolling two flights into one.
NASA’s EM-2 involves performing two orbits around the Earth after launch, before Orion can be directed towards the moon. The spacecraft will orbit the moon and use its gravity to be propelled back toward home, reaching speeds of 25,000 mph and producing temperature of 2,760 Celsius upon Earth re-entry, hotter and faster than what it experienced during its test flight, NASA notes.
[Featured Image by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]