NASA Will Not Fly Crew on First SLS/Orion Mission

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

NASA officials announced on Friday the first combined flight of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), will be conducted without a crew as originally planned. They also said the flight test will slip from 2018 to 2019.

The announcements came after the space agency conducted a review at the request of the Trump Administration to see if EM-1 could be safely flown with a crew. NASA plans to place a crew aboard the EM-2 mission, which is currently scheduled for 2021.

In a media teleconference, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said although it would be technically possible to put a crew of the first flight, the space agency decided to stick with the original plan.

He said a number of factors played a role in the decision. For example, the development of crew software and the life support and environmental control system would have to be accelerated.

Budget was also an issue. NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier said a crewed EM-1 mission would have cost the agency an additional $600 million to $900 million.

Lightfoot said NASA and the Trump White House made the decision after examining the results of the space agency’s review.

Lightfoot said placing a crew on the EM-1 mission would have likely delayed the flight into the first or second quarter of 2020, he added.

The EM-1 mission will enable engineers to give Orion a full workout during a 21- to 25-day that will place the spacecraft in a distant retrograde orbit around the moon, the officials said. A crewed mission would be shorter due to safety concerns.

The EM-1 mission will be delayed from late 2018 to an unspecified date in 2019. There have been delays in manufacturing, welding and the deliver of a European-supplied service module for Orion. A tornado also damaged a production facility in Louisiana.

The delay in EM-1 will cause a delay in the crewed EM-2 mission, which is scheduled for 2021, officials said. One of the issues is the launch pad will require modifications after the first flight to accommodate a longer variant of the SLS booster.

Officials said they are investigating an accident in which the dome of a SLS fuel tank was damaged when it was dropped. They said the asccident was not likely to delay the EM-1 mission because another dome is available.

Lightfoot said the Trump Administration is not pushing the agency to send humans to Mars by 2024. President Donald Trump had mentioned the possibility of moving up the mission — scheduled for the 2030’s — during a phone to astronauts aboard the International Space Station.