NASA Examines Placing Crew on First SLS-Orion Flight

An expanded view of the next configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, including the four RL10 engines. (Credit: NASA)

Reports out of the leaking like a sieve Trump Administration say the president is looking for some space spectacular that can be conducted in time for his re-election campaign in 2020 to serve as evidences he’s made America great again.

So, NASA is examining whether it can give him one by putting a crew on the first Space Launch System-Orion flight, which is currently planned as a circum-lunar flight without astronauts aboard.

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, in a speech at the Space Launch System/Orion Suppliers Conference here Feb. 15, and a memo emailed at the same time to the agency’s workforce, said he had directed Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, to begin a study on the feasibility of putting a crew on the first SLS mission, known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1)….

Current plans call for the EM-1 mission to launch in late 2018 without a crew. The first crewed flight would be EM-2, which NASA is planning to launch in 2021. However, an assessment in 2015 performed as Orion reached a development milestone known as Key Decision Point C indicated that there was a 70 percent chance the EM-2 mission would launch no later than April 2023.

Lightfoot, in the memo, said the study will examine the technical and schedule issues of flying a crew on EM-1. “I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed,” he wrote, “and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date.”

That work, as Lightfoot suggested in his memo, would likely delay the EM-1 launch from its current estimated launch window of September to November 2018. Industry sources said they believe addressing the various issues would delay the mission to 2019 or 2020. That would still be sooner than current NASA schedules for EM-2.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    I’m all for getting NASA out of the risk averse mode they’ve been in for years but this seems less about stepping up than it does about trying to eek out a crewed flight before the budget/schedule death spiral kicks in making SLS look very irrelevant (and late to the party) in 2020s.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Can we launch the second SLS and Orion manned in 2019?

  • Sure, go for it!

  • Stu

    Looks like an excuse to have a delay…

  • therealdmt

    Sure, go for it! What could possibly go wrong?!

  • therealdmt

    This first flight should also be used to disprove global warming!

  • Saturn13

    Sounds good. An old article. Peacekeeper would be used. Got to do the abort. USAF is launching a Minotaur from SLC-46 this summer. Has not been used in 17 years. Ought to get 46 ready for the abort test and USAF pays for it. Space Florida said they would spend what ever is needed to get it ready.

  • JamesG

    The partisan editoralization is not very professional Doug… That is our job 😛

    This wasn’t a leak either, more like a trial-balloon. Or maybe a message by Lightfoot, up to the Administration that he wants the job full time, and down that SLS needs to get into gear.

    Also, EM-1 wasn’t going to be just unmanned. It was going to be an empty shell with a single use stand in transfer stage (built at high cost). Basically nothing but a test of the SLS part of the stack. Opportunity loss….

  • Arthur Hamilton

    Congress will have the latest final say in whatever happens with the SLS/Orion.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, NASA is grasping at straws to stay in the game. Hopefully wiser heads will put a stop to it. Even the mighty Saturn V flew without crew on its first flight. To use the SLS to go straight to EM L1 without testing the Orion is a huge gamble. If they lose it may well be the end of HSF at NASA.

  • Vladislaw

    people that run blogs can’t editorialize?

  • Richard Malcolm

    Is Parabolic a blog, a news outlet, or both?

  • P.K. Sink

    A news outlet with an attitude.

  • JamesG

    Not if they want to be taken a “Serious Journalist”.

  • Vladislaw

    sorry didn’t ever notice Doug mentioning that he was a journalist.. I thought he was a managing editor

    “An editorial, leading article (US) or leader (UK), is an often-unsigned opinion piece written by the senior editorial staff or publisher of a newspaper, magazine, or any other written document. Editorials may be supposed to reflect the opinion of the periodical.”

  • Vladislaw

    So an Editor can write OPINIONS that reflect the OPINION of the periodical.. hhmm

    that SURE sounds like what Doug is doing.

  • Vladislaw

    And for the record… I have called out Doug on some of his opinions as he has called me out on some of mine. One of the reasons I have stayed with this blog. The give and take of opinions that can lead to a synthesis on the issues.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    Remember that the Space Shuttle Columbia never had an unmanned test flight (not even an suborbital one) prior to April, 12, 1981. Did I jog your memory?

  • Jacob Samorodin

    What can possibly go wrong when you step out the door, or drive out of your driveway every morning? Life is full of risks. Some more than others.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    They tried to rush the launch of Apollo 1 in the first quarter of 1967. Remember what happened?

  • Jacob Samorodin

    NASA has already spent billions of dollars on it, and you think the Congress would just abandon it with nothing to show?

  • Tom Billings

    Yes, and we later found that there was enough damage to the body flap on the orbiter that John Young said he would have aborted the mission had he known about it.

    Some of NASA’s habits go right back to its origin in the office of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1958, and reflect that a fight for it was to be used as a tool (issue) to get LBJ into the WH in the 1960 campaign. That Eisenhower pulled a political Judo move by letting NASA through with minimal changes to LBJ’s charter denied him the Democrat nomination in 1960. Still, the cost was a politicized NASA from day one.

  • Tom Billings

    “NASA has already spent billions of dollars on it, and you think the Congress would just abandon it with nothing to show?”

    That has been done time and time again in Aerospace.

    Look at the history of the A-12 as an example.

    The key for Congress is to keep voters dependent on the members’ seniority to keep money flowing into their district as long as possible. That keeps voters dependent on the members in a nearly feudal relationship, which guarantees re-election far too often.

  • Hug Doug

    It wouldn’t be the first time, programs costing billions have been cancelled. One good example is the Navy’s stealth destroyer program, it cost $22.5 billion and was cancelled after two had been built.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The problem there was lack of trust in the autopilot to land it. It was also why there was a crew on the drop tests. Same with the X-15, the other rocket plane.

    But they did compromise by putting ejection seats in the Orbiter and limiting it’s crew to two to minimize lost.

    BTW remember Soyuz 1? The Russians rushed it as well, but knowing the risk they only put a single cosmonaut aboard. He paid with his life for their rush to fly it.

  • JamesG

    I do believe he styles himself as one. Of course the article isn’t attributed as an editorial piece, but then again this IS a blog where you can jabber on about anything you want…

    The brave new media world… where you can be editor and writer of your own interwebs publication where the truth doesn’t matter and facts can be as alternative as you want. Just as long as the Google Adsense dollars keep rollin’ in.

  • Vladislaw

    WOW .. I am actually surprised you would even bother coming and reading at a site where the truth doesn’t matter and facts can be as alternative as you want… personally.. if this was my blog .. I would boot you .. .just .. because.

  • ReSpaceAge

    I hear that’s NASAs commercial crew review process should take 8 weeks from the time stuff is submitted but they drag it out to as much as 6 months.
    Seems to me NASA is trying to torpedo/delay commercial crew to give SLS Orion the edge to save their jobs.

  • Douglas Messier

    Trump is railing against leaks, so that part is true. Trump has been looking for something spectacular to do in time for his re-election. See Telescope, Hubble Space and Proposal, Dream Chaser Servicing. So that’s also true. And getting a crew on Orion before the next presidential election would fit the bill as well.

    The report out of NASA was clearly not a leak because Lightfoot talked about it in a public meeting. How could that be a leak? Talking about it publicly. And where did I say it was a leak? What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis? Seriously. You all worried about my editorializing and I don’t even think you even read the piece. It’s in the first line of the excerpt from Space News. A speech at a suppliers conference. Who would assume that’s a leak?

    It might be a trial balloon. But, Lightfoot has ordered an actual study of it. Sounds like more than a trail balloon to me because it would involve months of work and lots of people. Unless someone steps in from the admin and stops it. There are people on the transition at NASA HQ, right? Do you think they were surprised by this? Did this come out of the blue for them?

  • Douglas Messier

    Oh for eff’s sake. Could you guys please focus on NASA”s proposal and whether it makes sense rather than trying to make the whole thing about me.

  • Douglas Messier

    Tom is right here. Columbia came close to being destroyed during launch. They miscalculated the bounce back force from the SRBs. Bent the front strut assembly holding the orbiter to the external tank. Also caused the rear flap to move wildly. Also, during re-entry one of the rear landing gear doors got warped due to heat. They were lucky on that flight.

    Orion will have an escape tower, so there is that level of additional safety. But, still, it’s a brand new booster.

  • Paul_Scutts

    Placing people upon the first launch of a rocket, where something major could easily go wrong, is just plain insane. Sure everything is modelled within an “inch of it’s life” these days, but, even so, “modelling” is not the same as “reality”. There could be unknown effects, acoustical, vibrational, etc., reasonable caution would dictate that at least the first launch should be “unmanned” (sure, with a flight simulator, this isn’t a video game, son, it really isn’t).

  • JamesG

    Kind of you to prove my point. With an added dose of intolerance for differing opinion. Stay classy Vlad.

  • JamesG

    You interject your opinion, you become part of the story.

  • JamesG

    Probably not. All transitions are awkward. This one is just particularly messy because its a political perfect storm.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    I may get a bit fired up about that

  • ajp

    booooooooooooooo 😉

  • Robert Gishubl

    Every news service has a bias and opinion. A news blog provides news and often the opinion of the blogger. “Serious Journalist” outlets still have editorials and opinion pieces. In addition any investigative piece is always part opinion.
    On the NASA side this type of trial balloon is sometimes a way of shutting the door on the option by documenting all the reasons why its a bad idea. I hope this is the case as putting people on top of a brand new un-tested rocket is a bad idea, too much is unknown to risk life if it is not essential.
    You can test everything without people onboard so risking the astronauts is just a stunt.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    As others have mentioned, the Shuttle flight test experience is a cautionary tale, not a lets charge the mountain the same way tale. The underlying problem is that an expendable booster that is too expensive to flight test even once is useless to build any type of useful exploration program as well.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    I’m still waiting for Doug to write a follow-up on the GAO report, since he just blindly re-bagged the WSJ article, which we now know was based on one paragraph of the report and already fixed. So the entire thing was a highly over-hyped hit piece that Doug co-opted.

  • Douglas Messier

    I finally got a chance to start looking at the GAO report last night at about 10 pm. The thing is 37 pages long and is very dense with information about both Boeing and SpaceX’s progress. I was in no shape last night after a very long and draining week to really absorb very much of it.

    If it’s all right with you, I’m going to look at it carefully today and will publish some posts in due course. OK?

  • Douglas Messier

    You want to explain where I’m wrong?

  • JamesG

    Wrong? Its your site you can do anything you want. But expect the peanut gallery to throw tomatoes when they are not amused. 😉

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    By all means. I am sure the Boeing issues will be displayed prominently in your piece and subsequent Twitter musings.

  • Jeff2Space

    This is a dumb idea all around. SLS is completely untested in flight. Orion’s one test flight hardly counts because of how “stripped down” it was. Ground tests and computer simulations are no substitute for a flight test.

  • Jeff2Space

    There was no “lack of trust in the autopilot to land it”. The space shuttle simply was not designed to be flown without a crew. This had as much to do with the internal politics inside of NASA as it did with anything else. With enough astronauts in charge in key positions, they quite simply did not want a vehicle where they were seen as “spam in the can” because the vehicle could fly itself.

    NASA is not alone in this. How many Soyuz dockings have been flown manually, even though Progress has proven that the automated systems work just fine?

  • Jeff2Space

    True, but how many times has a jet airliner flown on its first flight completely full of passengers? How about zero. Even a new copy of an existing jet airliner design undergoes a test flight (with a minimal flight crew) before flying passengers.

    There is necessary risk (driving to work every day), and then there is unnecessary risk (a pedestrian stepping out into traffic without looking).

  • Jeff2Space

    Throwing good money after bad is also called the sunk cost fallacy. As in, “we have to keep funding this program because we’ve already spent so much on it!”.

    That logic is flawed. “Sunk costs”, or money already spent, has no bearing on whether or not a project is worth continuing (i.e. future costs versus future benefits).

  • Douglas Messier

    Well, thank you. I appreciate that.

    While you wait, you might want to refresh your memory on what the NASA Inspector General found in the report it released on Sept. 1. You can find the full report on the NASA IG website. Or you can take a look at Parabolic Arc’s coverage of it.

    Boeing’s Starliner Challenges: Weight, Vibrations, Software & Landings

    Boeing Commercial Crew Milestone Status

    SpaceX Crew Dragon Challenges: Welds, Cracks & Water Seepage — Sept. 4, 2016

    SpaceX Commercial Crew Milestone Status — Sept. 3, 2016

    NASA OIG Report: Further Delays in Commercial Crew, More Payments to Russians — Sept. 1, 2016

    Just in you may have missed all this reporting because the Falcon 9 caught fire and exploded on launch pad while being fueled the same day the report was released.

  • Douglas Messier

    Trump’s Admin is leaking like a sieve.
    He is looking at something spectacular that could be done by 2020.
    The review is a response to it.

    I’m confident all that is accurate. You’re free to disagree.