NASA nixes crew for test flight of new megarocket in 2019

Posted May 13, 2017

NASA has delayed the first launch of its heavy-payload rocket until 2019 and decided against an idea floated by the White House to put astronauts aboard the capsule that is set to fly around the moon, the US space agency said on Friday.The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had hoped to launch the Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket in November 2018.

"NASA determined it is technically capable of launching crew on EM-1, but after evaluating cost, risk and technical factors in a project of this magnitude, it would be hard to accommodate changes needed to add crew at this point in mission planning", the agency said in a statement.

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 decision also confirmed that NASA expects the EM-1 date to slip into 2019.

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. However, after evaluating cost, risk, and technical factors in a project of this magnitude, it is hard to accommodate changes needed for a crewed EM-1 mission at this time. However, a lot of technologies would have to be accelerated, such as a life support system to keep the crew alive and abort system that could save the crew in case of an emergency during flight.

Late last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office warned that a delay was likely for the first SLS flight, crew or not.

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An artistic rendering of the Orion crew capsule. We will continue to work with Congress as we move toward a crewed flight test on EM-2 and, right now, we are very focused on accomplishing the EM-1 flight test.

Lightfoot said in press conference today that putting a crew on the first flight of the SLS was technically feasible. Pegasus is transporting test articles for the largest rocket stage in the world, the Space Launch System, from the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama for testing.

Reading between the lines, it seems that the additional funding and time needed outstripped any desire to send humans into space during Trump's first term. NASA has an internal planning date of August 2021 for EM-2, but it will use a different upper stage than EM-1: the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) instead of the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS). "So we knew those had to get added in". The SLS is similar in size to the Saturn V rockets used in the Apollo program but generate far more thrust.

We are building both systems and supporting infrastructure to ensure a sustained cadence of missions beginning with EM-1 and continuing thereafter.

"Well, we want to try to do it during my first term or at worst during my second term so we will have to speed that up a little bit ok?"