Sat. Feb 4th, 2023
NASA's Orion spacecraft may launch crew into space for the first time in 2019 under a new plan NASA is considering.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft may launch crew into space for the first time in 2019 under a new plan NASA is considering.

NASA

When transitional presidential officials recently reviewed NASA’s existing plans for using the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, they weren’t particularly impressed with the agency’s stretched timelines. Under NASA’s current plan, the first crewed launch of the new vehicles was unlikely to occur before 2021, and independent analyzes pointed to 2023 as a more realistic target. That would take the first manned flight to deep space after President Trump’s first term.

In response to these concerns, top-level NASA executives have considered the possibility of launching the crew on the first flight of the Space Launch System, known as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), rather than an unmanned test flight. make the missile as currently planned. While this would delay the first launch of the SLS rocket from 2018 to at least 2019 or 2020, it would also add more spice by bringing crew into the mix.

Such a mission would likely see astronauts fly around the moon, as happened with the historic Apollo 8 flight in 1968. As a senior NASA executive recently explained to Ars, imagine the message NASA could send if, on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landings in 1969, it again sent people back into space with its new rocket and spacecraft. NASA appears to be fulfilling its promise to America to explore deep space with humans again.

Now these secret plans have come out. On Wednesday, acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot sent a memo to agency staff saying such an option would now be studied. “I have asked Bill Gerstenmaier to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion,” he wrote. “I am aware of the challenges associated with such a proposal, such as assessing technical feasibility, additional resources required and it is clear that the additional work would require a different launch date. That being said, I would also like to hear about the opportunities it could provide for the effort of the first manned flight and what it would take to take that first step to push humans further into space.”

Big questions

Such an initiative raises big questions for NASA. First, would risk assessors agree to launching astronauts on the huge SLS rocket without prior unmanned test flight? (The agency has done this before, launching John Young and Robert Crippen on the first space shuttle mission without an uncrewed test flight). The second big question is whether the Orion spacecraft would be ready for such a mission. NASA engineers at the Johnson Space Center designed the vehicle for an unmanned EM-1, without some major life support systems.

But an engineer at the Houston Space Center said it’s likely that, with additional funding, Orion could be made ready. Some systems, such as carbon dioxide removal systems, might have to rely on a more rudimentary bus system rather than a final design, but the older technologies have been proven in previous missions. “If we started with EM-1 and just added what we needed, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work,” the engineer told Ars.

The politics of it all also remain murky. The idea of ​​a crewed EM-1 flight may be part of a plan by Lightfoot to increase the likelihood that the new government will continue to fund development of the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft. As Lightfoot is well aware, there are factions within the Trump administration urging the president to fully embrace the commercialization of the space agency, along with the promise of cheaper rockets and capsules being developed by the private space industry. A greater focus on commercial spaceflight could cut funding for the more expensive government vehicles — or eliminate it altogether.

For now, it’s up to Gerstenmaier, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight operations, to study the question of crew timelines, costs and safety. The survival of his cherished SLS and Orion programs may well depend on his willingness to set aside some of his usual caution.

A look at Orion development in Michoud, Louisiana in early 2016.

Jennifer Hahn

By akfire1

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