NASA To Study Adding Crew to first SLS/Orion Mission While GAO Worries About Challenges of Flying Without a Crew

NASA To Study Adding Crew to first SLS/Orion Mission While GAO Worries About Challenges of Flying Without a Crew

Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot today announced that he has requested an internal NASA study of the feasibility of placing a crew on the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) and its Orion spacecraft.  Until now, the “program of record” has called for an uncrewed flight first to test the rocket and spacecraft systems, followed 2-4 years later with the first launch with a crew.  Also today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its biennial report on “high risk” government programs wherein it expressed concerns about challenges ahead for that first SLS flight under the current plan of launching it without anyone aboard.

NASA is building SLS to fulfill the goal of sending humans to Mars.  The first version will be able to loft 70 metric tons (MT) into low Earth orbit.  Future versions will be able to lift 105 MT and 130 MT, more than the Saturn V rocket that sent astronauts to the Moon.  Boeing is the SLS prime contractor.  The spacecraft that will carry crews to cis-lunar space and beyond, Orion, is being built by Lockheed Martin.  A test model was launched by a Delta IV rocket in 2014 and made two orbits of Earth before splashing down in the Pacific.

The existing plan is to conduct the first launch of SLS in late 2018 (although there are indications that will slip to 2019) carrying an empty Orion. It is designated Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).  The next flight of SLS with an Orion, EM-2, is formally scheduled for 2023 although NASA is working to accelerate that launch to 2021.  That would be the first SLS/Orion to carry a crew.

In a memo to employees today, Lightfoot referenced President Trump’s inaugural address where the President said the country will “unlock the mysteries of space.” Lightfoot then stated “Accordingly it is imperative to the mission of this agency that we are successful in safely and effectively executing both the SLS and Orion programs.”  In that connection, he continued, “I have asked [NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations] Bill Gerstenmaier to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1…. I know the challenges associated with such a proposition … [but] want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight…”   The announcement was made in conjunction with the SLS/Orion “suppliers conference” taking place in Washington, D.C. right now.

Lockheed Martin spokesperson Allison Miller said in a statement that “Lockheed Martin will support NASA on a study to determine the feasibility of flying a crew on Exploration Mission-1. We’ll look at accelerating remaining crew system designs, as well as potential technical and schedule challenges and how to mitigate them.”  Boeing spokesperson Kelly Kaplan said:  “The possibility of NASA accelerating the timeline to put humans into the vicinity of the moon and onto Mars is exciting. Safety of the crew is most important, so of course there will be many factors we will consider as we assess the feasibility of adding crew to EM-1.  We applaud NASA’s bold path forward in this transition time and we’re proud to be a part of the journey to Mars.”

Every two years, GAO publishes a report on high-risk programs across the government.  NASA’s human spaceflight program has been on the list for many years, including SLS and Orion and their associated Exploration Ground Systems (EGS).  This year’s report cites “unreliable cost estimating, overly ambitious internal deadlines, limited reserves, and operating for extended periods of time without definitized contracts” as issues that “have increased the likelihood that it will incur overruns and schedule delays, particularly when coupled with the broad array of technical risks that are inherent in any human spaceflight development.”

Speaking directly to the EM-1 mission as currently planned — without a crew — GAO says SLS, Orion and EGS “will need to resolve a multitude of technical and design challenges, complete fabrication and testing, and be delivered to the Kennedy Space Center where they will be integrated with each other and prepared for launch. … If delays materialize during individual systems integration and testing, they could cause a cascading effect of cross-program problems.”

Only three countries have launched people into space — the United States, Russia/Soviet Union, and China.  The United States is the only one that has ever launched a crew on the first flight of a new launch system — the first launch of the space shuttle (STS-1) in 1981.  Gerstenmaier addressed the risks in new human spaceflight systems at a conference last week.  He noted that before STS-1, models indicated that the risk of losing the crew was between 1 in 500 and 1 and 5,000.   At the end of the program in 2011, after 30 years of experience that involved two fatal shuttle flights (Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003), Gerstenmaier said NASA concluded that the actual risk of losing the crew on that flight was 1 in 12.

Note:  This article was updated with the quote from Boeing.

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