Earlier this year, President Donald Trump asked NASA to study if it would be feasible to make the first SLS flight a crewed mission. With that study having been completed, it looks like the answer to the President’s question is “no,” as the first launch of the Space Launch System rocket will take place without any astronauts heading out with it.
The study was first announced in the last week of February, as NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot had previously tasked William Gerstenmaier, the agency’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, to lead the study, with an expected completion date set around early spring. With the first SLS flight and the Orion spacecraft, NASA’s Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) hopes to pave the way for future missions that take humans considerably farther into our solar system than what was once possible.
“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 Gerstenmaier in a statement.
“This is an assessment and not a decision as the primary mission for EM-1 remains an uncrewed flight test.”
With about two months having passed since Gerstenmaier launched the study, Lightfoot spoke to reporters on Friday, confirming that the first SLS flight will not be a crewed mission, despite being “technically feasible” in theory. According to a New York Times report, cost, time, and risks were the main variables that influenced NASA, through Lightfoot, to stick with the original plan of making the launch unmanned.
The New York Times added that making the first SLS flight a crewed mission would have delayed its tentative launch date from 2019 to the first half of 2020, and would have added another $600 million to $900 million to the EM-1 mission’s $24 billion price. Further, this would have required adding a working life support system to the Orion capsule, where any crew members would have been seated during the flight. But the fact that Lightfoot mentioned that the SLS rocket is now expected to launch a little later was quite interesting in itself.
Due to “various technical challenges” and an unforeseen weather event that damaged the facility where the SLS rocket’s components are being manufactured, Lightfoot told reporters that the first SLS flight will be launching sometime in 2019, and not in November 2018 as originally hoped. This flight, which will last three weeks and have the SLS and Orion going “thousands of miles” beyond the moon, will be followed up by a flight with astronauts that was originally scheduled for August 2021, but may likely be delayed as well.
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) May 13, 2017
According to Gerstenmaier, the tornado that gutted the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana had “really set (NASA) back in a big way.” But that wasn’t the only challenge the space agency has faced in the months since it launched its SLS/Orion feasibility study.
The New York Times wrote that one of the SLS rocket’s features, a “big, dome-shaped piece” that would have served as the bottom of a liquid oxygen tank, got severely damaged while being moved last month, and as Gerstenmaier sees it, there’s a good chance it can no longer be repaired. Still, he added that there are still other dome-shaped features that could be used, and that last month’s setback might not add to the existing delays.
As seen on a separate report from UPI, Robert Lightfoot’s comments at Friday’s news conference suggest that he and NASA remain thankful for the Donald Trump administration’s continued support of the space agency, despite the fact that the first SLS flight won’t take place as soon as anticipated, and that said flight won’t include any astronauts on the Orion spacecraft.
“The bi-partisan support of Congress and the president for our efforts to send astronauts deeper into the solar system than we have ever gone before is valued and does not go unnoticed. Presidential support for space has been strong.”
However, the New York Times wrote that NASA may have to deal with more critical comments from skeptics who believe the Space Launch System and Orion will both be obsolete once the first SLS flight takes place a few years from now. These skeptics include former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who had previously referred to the SLS as “less capable” than the nearly five decade-old Saturn 5 rocket that was instrumental in sending astronauts to space in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
[Featured Image by NASA]