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NASA Orion and SLS
An artist’s view shows NASA’s Space Launch System launching an Orion capsule. (NASA Illustration)

NASA has broken the news to the White House and the world that speeding up the first crewed flight of its exploration launch system wouldn’t be worth the added cost and risk.

That means the first launch of NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System will fly without astronauts, as originally planned. And it will fly later than planned: NASA officials said today that liftoff will have to be delayed to 2019, although it’s too early to be more precise about the time frame.

The determination comes after weeks of discussions focusing on whether the flight plan for what’s known as Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1, could be tweaked to put people on board. Such a scenario would give the White House more to celebrate in President Donald Trump’s first term.

“We decided that while it’s technically feasible … the baseline plan that we had in place was the best way for us to go,” Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, told reporters today during a teleconference.

The baseline plan calls for using the Space Launch System, or SLS, to power an uncrewed Orion capsule beyond Earth orbit, into a wide retrograde orbit around the moon. The Orion capsule would return to Earth for a splashdown about three weeks after launch.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said reworking EM-1 to fly a crew would have cost an additional $600 million to $900 million, depending on how much more redesign and testing NASA decided to do.

Other issues are already likely to add to the cost and schedule challenges facing the mission, he said. For example, NASA’s European partners are behind schedule on building the service module for the Orion deep-space capsule that would be launched by the SLS.

The damage done to NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana by a tornado in February was another “unfortunate” turn of events for the program, Gerstenmaier said. And most recently, a liquid-oxygen tank that would have been used for structural tests of the SLS was damaged beyond repair when it was dropped at Michoud this month.

All those factors suggest that an uncrewed EM-1 mission, which had been scheduled for late 2018, will slip into 2019, Gerstenmaier said. He said a more precise date would be determined in a month or so.

Lightfoot said adding a crew would have meant further delays, most likely to 2020, and might have required the redesign of Orion’s heat shield and other components for EM-1.

Changing the flight plan would also mean there’d be people aboard for the first test of a totally new type of launch vehicle, which NASA has done only once before – on the space shuttle Columbia in 1981.

Gerstenmaier said that the delays to date are “typical of almost any major development of this complexity,” but that the additional complexity of putting a crew on board would push the cost and risk beyond where NASA thought it was prudent to go.

As it is, the delays for EM-1 will probably trigger delays for Exploration Mission 2, the first Orion-SLS mission that’s meant to carry crew. That mission is currently set for the summer of 2021, but Gerstenmaier said the schedule will be reassessed in light of EM-1’s likely postponement.

Lightfoot said that the question about putting people on EM-1 was originally raised by Trump’s NASA transition team, and that the White House concurred with the decision that was made.

“I would say we made it together,” Lightfoot recalled. “We didn’t throw it over the fence, and they didn’t throw it back.”

Phil Larson – who previously served as an Obama administration official and a SpaceX spokesman, and now works at the University of Colorado at Boulder – said the decision was no surprise. “Unfortunate, but not shocked,” he said in a tweet.

Commercial space ventures such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have offered to make their heavy-lift launch vehicles, currently under development, available to NASA for missions to the moon and its vicinity.

SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, went so far as to invite NASA to use a Falcon Heavy for a round-the-moon mission. That offer came in February, when Musk announced that two private passengers have signed up to go on such a mission as early as next year.

SpaceX and Boeing are working on commercial space taxis that could start making trips to and from the International Space Station in 2018 or so. And SpaceX is planning one or two robotic missions to Mars in 2020.

Gerstenmaier and Lightfoot insisted that NASA would continue with the multibillion-dollar development program for Orion and SLS, rather than throwing in the towel and relying exclusively on commercial launch services for flights beyond Earth orbit.

They pointed out that Orion and SLS are meant to be the first pieces of a space infrastructure that can deliver travelers and payloads beyond Earth orbit to lunar orbit, to the moon’s surface, to Mars and its moons, and onward to farther-out destinations.

“We’re looking for a sustainable program here – more than just one mission,” Lightfoot said.

But Lightfoot left the door open for private-sector space exploration as well. “This is an ‘and’ proposition,” he said. “This is not an ‘or.'”

Lightfoot also cleared up a question that Trump left hanging in the air during a space-to-ground chat a couple of weeks ago, when the president said he wanted to see humans going to Mars “during my first term, or at worst during my second term.”

Does that mean White House officials want NASA to speed up its plan to send astronauts to Mars and its moons in the 2030s?

“They’ve asked us to look at the plan that we’ve got today, and see if we can keep going on that plan,” Lightfoot said. “They have not asked us to go to Mars by 2024.”

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