NASA Holding Firm on First SLS/Orion Flight for 2017, But Challenges Remain

NASA Holding Firm on First SLS/Orion Flight for 2017, But Challenges Remain

NASA officials provided an update today on the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft.  They conveyed optimism about the progress of SLS, Orion and associated ground systems and the ability to meet the goal of a 2017 first SLS/Orion launch.  Under questioning, however, it became clear that achieving that schedule will be a challenge.

SLS and Orion are being designed primarily to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) – to an asteroid by 2025 and to orbit (but not land on) Mars in the 2030s.  By law, they must also be able to service the International Space Station (ISS), which is located in LEO.

The first launch of a test version of Orion, called EFT-1, is scheduled for December 4, 2014.  It will launch on a Delta IV rocket and make two orbits of the Earth to test heat shield technology.   The first Orion launch aboard an SLS, designated EM-1, is scheduled for 2017.  Neither the 2014 nor 2017 flights will carry crews.  The first crewed flight of Orion aboard an SLS, EM-2, is anticipated in 2021.

NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Dan Dumbacher, who has announced his retirement, told a meeting of the Space Transportation Association (STA) that EFT-1 remains on schedule.   NASA does not want the test to slip much beyond that date to ensure there is adequate time to factor resulting data into the final design of Orion.

He also said that EM-1 remains on track for 2017 and a slide presented by SLS program manager Todd May had a caption “ready to launch in 2017.”  Nonetheless, there have been rumors that it may slip to 2018.  At a Senate Appropriations hearing in May, for example, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said that the launch will be in fiscal year 2018, which runs from October 1, 2017-September 30, 2018.  Only the first three months of that window are in calendar year 2017.

Apparently the potential delays are due to Orion, not SLS.  In response to questions, Dumbacher said things were going well with SLS and ground systems, but there are “challenges” with Orion.  He cited “standard” hardware development and supply chain challenges coupled with budget issues in FY2013 that required the program to “power back” because of sequestration and furloughs during the government shutdown last year as all impacting the Orion hardware development schedule.  The Orion team is “working that,” he said, along with integration with the European service module that the European Space Agency is providing.  The bottom line was that all three elements – SLS, Orion and ground systems – need to be ready at the same time and that is when EM-1 will take place.

Separately, Dumbacher refuted rumors that EM-2, like EM-1, may not carry a crew:  “Despite what some people might want to say in the blogosphere [EM-2] will be crewed.  There’s word out there we’re not going to fly crew until EM-3.  Don’t believe it.”

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