In which NASA unwittingly threatens a big-budget production of the opening chapter of Perigee. There’s a lot to unpack here. First, The Verge on the the buzz it has created inside the agency (and the inherent challenges):
NASA is mulling over the idea of putting astronauts on the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) — the giant heavy-lift rocket the space agency is building to take people to Mars someday. Currently, NASA is hoping to fly the SLS for the first time in fall of 2018, and the original plan was for that mission to be uncrewed. But a new memo sent out to NASA employees this morning shows that the agency will start investigating the possibility of making the debut flight of SLS, called EM-1, a crewed mission instead.
This seems…unwise.Ars Technica takes a more cynical view:
When presidential transition officials recently reviewed NASA’s existing plans for using its Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, they were not particularly impressed with the agency’s stretched-out timelines. Under NASA’s current plan, an initial crewed launch of the new vehicles was unlikely to occur before 2021, and independent analyses pegged 2023 as a more realistic target. That would put the first crewed flight into deep space beyond the first term of President Trump.
In response to these concerns, top-level NASA managers have been considering the possibility of launching crew on the maiden flight of the Space Launch System, known as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), instead of making an uncrewed test flight of the rocket as presently planned. Although this would delay the initial launch of the SLS rocket from 2018 to at least 2019 or 2020, it would also add more sizzle by bringing crew to the mix.
With such a mission, astronauts would likely fly around the Moon as happened with the historic Apollo 8 flight in 1968. As one senior NASA manager recently explained to Ars, imagine the message NASA could send if, on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landings in 1969, it was once again sending humans back into deep space with its new rocket and spacecraft. NASA would seem to be fulfilling its promise to America of getting back into the business of exploring deep space with humans.
I have to admit being of two minds over this. Orion’s already been tested once in orbit, launched by a Delta IV Heavy (which begs the question of why exactly do we need SLS?). Bothering with another unmanned flight seems wasteful until you consider that they also don’t want to put a crew on the first flight of a new heavy lifter. The answer appears to be politics, generally not the best driver of major changes to an engineering project:
The Trump administration is considering a bold and controversial vision for the U.S. space program that calls for a “rapid and affordable” return to the moon by 2020, the construction of privately operated space stations and the redirection of NASA’s mission to “the large-scale economic development of space,” according to internal documents obtained by POLITICO.
“It is a big fight,” said former Republican Rep. Robert Walker of Pennsylvania, who drafted the Trump campaign’s space policy and remains involved in the deliberations. “There are billions of dollars at stake. It has come to a head now when it has become clear to the space community that the real innovative work is being done outside of NASA.”
The early indications are that private rocket firms like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and their supporters have a clear upper hand in what Trump’s transition advisers portrayed as a race between “Old Space” and “New Space,” according to emails among key players inside the administration.
Conceptually, Trump’s people are pushing NASA exactly in the direction I’d hoped. Having said that, EM-1 isn’t in the same league as Apollo 8. That carried significant risks, but they’d already tested the spacecraft in orbit and launched a few Saturn Vs by this point. Up until the Apollo 1 fire, they’d been flying crewed missions at a pretty good clip whereas we’re looking at years in between Orion missions.
Much as I’ve advocated for NASA to do something spectacular (*cough* Mars Free Return *cough*), sending the first crewed flight on a circumlunar mission seems too ambitious for an agency that hasn’t flown people past Earth orbit in almost fifty years. Their track record on seeing new programs through to completion isn’t exactly stellar (see what I did there?).
SLS is a monster in more ways than just size, and I’d be a lot more excited about this if they’d send Orion, the Earth departure stage, and maybe a hab module up on separate launchers. Assemble and check out the new spacecraft in LEO, then light the candle. It would be safer than throwing them up there on an unproven heavy lifter. But this…this sounds like it’ll end up being a great opportunity to test the Launch Espace System.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
(H/T: Transterrestrial Musings)