NASA mulling plan to add crew to SLS' debut launch

As it stands, the Orion slated to launch on the first test flight will not be equipped with life support systems, and will be flying a different heat shield than was flown on the capsule's first test flight in 2014, two name just two technical concerns.

The Trump administration has directed NASA to study whether it is feasible to fly astronauts on the debut flight of the agency's heavy-lift rocket, a mission now planned to be unmanned and targeted to launch in late 2018, officials said on Friday.

The launch, called Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), is now scheduled to be the first test flight of the SLS booster, which will send an uncrewed Orion capsule into deep space.

"This is an assessment and not a decision, as the primary mission for EM-1 remains an uncrewed flight test". If it proves impossible to launch with a crew aboard by late 2019, he said, NASA would stick to the current plan of a crew on EM-2 in 2021.

NASA is working on a risk analysis report over sending astronauts on the maiden flight of the most powerful rocket - the Space Launch System or SLS in the integrated flight with the Orion spacecraft.

Putting people on board would delay the mission and require extra money.

Commenting on the new interest in taking astronauts on board, Bob Walker, space policy adviser to the Trump administration, said an aggressive posture on human space exploration is what the administration is looking at.

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Under that plan, Gerstenmaier said, almost three years are needed between an unmanned flight test and a crewed mission to make launch platform changes at Kennedy Space Center. "We also recognize we'll need to add some additional funding".

While the new mission wouldn't be filled with groundbreaking scientific firsts like its predecessor was almost 50 years ago, it could offer advantages to NASA.

With launches coming in at a price $1 billion per mission, SLS is expected to launch at most once every one to two years, focusing on deep space targets like Mars and Europa and leaving Low Earth Orbit operations such as the International Space Station to the workhorse rockets of SpaceX and Orbital Alliance.

Quartz writer Tim Fernholz raises another question: Is this the best use of taxpayers dollars, given the rise of private space companies?

NASA will finalize its report in a month.

"NASA should provide a compelling rationale in terms of benefits gained in return for accepting additional risk, and fully and transparently acknowledge the tradeoffs being made", said Sanders.

  • Regina Walsh