NASA's Study of Adding Crew to EM-1 is Completed, Awaiting Response

NASA's Study of Adding Crew to EM-1 is Completed, Awaiting Response

NASA Acting Chief Scientist Gale Allen said today that the agency’s feasibility study of adding a crew to the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion has been completed and briefed to agency and White House officials.  The report is not public, she added, and the agency is now waiting for a “go forward” plan.   She also said that NASA is expecting a flat budget for the next 5 years, not even including adjustments for inflation, which will reduce its buying power by $3.4 billion over that time period.

Allen spoke to a colloquium of microgravity scientists meeting in conjunction with a National Academies committee that is assessing NASA’s implementation of a 2012 Decadal Survey on life and physical sciences in space. Although the International Space Station (ISS) was built largely to serve as a research laboratory, funding for that research has been constrained because of the costs of building and operating the facility.

Her message was that the budget outlook is not promising in terms of any increase for research funding.  Thus it is imperative that the microgravity science community make a “compelling” case as to why proposed research is essential.  Decisions also will be needed as to where the research must be conducted.  How much must be done on ISS, for example, versus cis-lunar space where NASA is planning to build a Deep Space Gateway.  The Gateway will have “minimal” research capabilities, Allen said, but some research must be done there instead of ISS.  One example is galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) studies.  The ISS, in low Earth orbit (LEO), is protected from GCR by Earth’s magnetosphere, but astronauts going to the Moon or Mars will be fully exposed so the research is critical.

Allen laid out NASA’s near-term plans for human exploration beyond LEO and mentioned in passing that the study of the concept of adding a crew to the first SLS flight — Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) — is completed and was briefed to Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot and “the White House.”  NASA is now “waiting for a go-forward plan.”

EM-1 has been designed from the beginning as a test flight carrying an uncrewed Orion spacecraft.   The first flight with a crew, EM-2, is officially scheduled for 2023, but NASA is hoping to accelerate that to 2021.  In addition to assessing the risk to the crew of launching on the first flight of a new rocket, the Orion spacecraft to be used for EM-1 does not have life support systems. A decision to launch a crew earlier would require a schedule delay and more funding in the near-term to outfit Orion with the necessary systems.   EM-1 and EM-2 also will use two different upper stages.  The more capable upper stage for EM-2 (the Exploration Upper Stage) is taller and requires modifications to ground facilities at the launch site.

The sudden decision to assess the feasibility of putting a crew on EM-1 was announced in February, shortly after President Trump took office.  NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said at a later media briefing that there was no “preconceived decision” and he wanted to “let the data drive us to an answer.” 

The United States is the only country to ever launch a crew on the first flight of a new launch vehicle — the space shuttle.  All other U.S. crewed launch systems as well as those of the Soviet Union/Russia and China have been tested without a crew first.   An exception was made for the first shuttle mission, STS-1 in April 1981, because it required humans to land the vehicle.  Gerstenmaier said in February, before the EM-1 crew feasibility study was announced, that prior to STS-1 NASA calculated the risk of losing the crew on that first flight was 1 in 500 to 1 in 1000.   After 30 years of experience and the loss of the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia missions and their crews, NASA recalculated the actual Loss of Crew risk for STS-1 was 1 in 12.



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