NASA may put astronauts on deep space test flight

"Our priority is to ensure the safe and effective execution of all our planned exploration missions with the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket", says William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

The first manned Orion mission was originally scheduled for 2021 when four astronauts would go on a circumlunar mission after an unmanned EM-1 had carried out a similar test flight.

During the first mission of SLS and Orion, NASA plans to send the spacecraft into a distant lunar retrograde orbit, which will require additional propulsion moves, a flyby of the Moon and return trajectory burns. NASA managers determined that the latter option is more pragmatic than the former.

The study is evaluating the pros and cons of adding two crew members, and could possibly delay the EM-1 mission until mid-2019. "If the feasibility study doesn't pan out, we still have a very exciting mission".

NASA is investigating hardware changes associated with the system that will be needed if crew are to be added to EM-1.

"From our previous assessment, we know it's going to take a significant amount of money - money that would be required fairly quickly", NASA's lead manager for the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft, Bill Hill said during a teleconference on Friday. "We are not proposing what the outcome of NASA's assessment should be", said Patricia Sanders, chairwoman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP).

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.

Developing the the two vehicles costs $3 billion a year, and the rosiest projections suggest annual costs of $2 billion, assuming one launch each year.

Trump has shown an interest in President John F. Kennedy's vow more than half a century ago to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, and, eyeing his reelection prospects, Trump could potentially announce some kind of ambitious space mission for NASA, likely in combination with entrepreneurial space companies. "If the benefits warrant assumption of additional risk, we expect NASA to clearly and openly articulate their decision process and rationale". Echoing that sentiment was William Hill, a deputy associate administrator: "We will let the identified risk and benefits drive this, as well as the data".

  • Joey Payne