The first launch of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion capsule may be a crewed mission instead of the uncrewed one initially planned, according to an announcement by acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot at a Washington, DC conference on Wednesday.
Lightfoot reported the space agency plans to hold feasibility studies for a crewed SLS-Orion mission and also addressed the issue in a NASA “agency update” memo.
Present at the conference were companies working with NASA on building Orion and the SLS, which when complete will be the biggest rocket ever built.
Titled Exploration Mission-1 or EM-1, the first test flight of SLS is scheduled for September 2018. Existing plans call for the rocket to launch an uncrewed capsule into lunar orbit, then return it to Earth using parachutes in an ocean landing three weeks later.
According to current plans, SLS’s second launch, EM-2, will be a crewed mission. Scheduled to launch in 2021, the spacecraft will not orbit the Moon but loop around its far side before returning to Earth.
Crewed missions require both a larger SLS rocket and a more powerful second stage, neither of which have yet been constructed.
If EM-1 is upgraded to a crewed mission, the Orion carrying them will likely conduct the maneuver planned for EM-2, looping around the Moon’s far side instead of entering lunar orbit.
In his memo, Lightfoot acknowledged, “I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed, and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date.”
It is unclear whether the upgraded launch schedule could be carried out, as two separate reports by the Government Accountability Office note the rocket and launch pad systems needed may not be ready in time for the 2018 and 2021 launches.
Changing EM-1 to a crewed mission could cause further delay and would also pose the problem of flying astronauts using a rocket that was never tested.
Some suspect the more ambitious plan as coming from the Trump administration’s NASA transition team since the administration has specifically shown interest in expanding public-private partnerships for spaceflight.