NASA: No crew to fly on EM-1
NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot and other NASA officials provided an overview of the feasibility study of having crew fly on the first flight of the agency’s new super-heavy-lift rocket – the Space Launch System (SLS). Both the studies primary areas came up with one answer to the question of whether astronauts could be included on the mission: No.
Given the technical risks and resources required, the agency stayed on the less risky uncrewed version of Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1). Lightfoot noted that, at the earliest, a crewed version of EM-1 would have likely taken place “very” late in 2019, with a first or second quarter 2020 launch date more probable.
A number of factors were considered, including (but not limited to) the tornado damage that was incurred at the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) located in Louisiana, as well as weld issues on the SLS’ core booster and more.
Lightfoot noted the importance of preserving the long-term objectives of developing and producing a long-term exploration program which could begin in the 2020s.
One of the issues that Lightfoot noted with placing crew on EM-1 was that it would mean that NASA’s entire crewed exploration program would have to be accelerated, and that would require more funding and other resources. Lightfoot noted that while it was technically possible to include crew on EM-1, with risk-mitigation, logistical, and funding issues, the baseline plan that the space agency is currently working under was the soundest path forward.
When asked if the Feasibility Study would be released for public review, it was stated that it likely would not be for some time. The reasons given were that it was not in a formal document and it was composed of an array of varying documents, some of which have information that conflicted with International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) restrictions. Lightfoot noted that a summary will, eventually, be released in a format that won’t impact the teams working on the SLS or Orion, or be afoul of ITAR restrictions.
Lightfoot noted the challenges that the tornado damage, delays in receiving the Service Module – produced by the European Space Agency (ESA) – as well as a recent accident with the liquid oxygen tank have had on the mission. During this point, Lightfoot reiterated that EM-1 would take place in 2019 at the earliest, although no formal date was announced.
The baseline plan is to have the first combined flight of the SLS and the agency’s Orion spacecraft conduct a mission to cislunar space. Lightfoot stated that when asked by the Trump Administration what would be required to add crew to EM-1, the response was additional funding – and time. There are a number of systems which simply are not ready to support sending astronauts around the Moon at present: the crew displays, an abort system, and the life support system were some of those highlighted.
It was later noted that within eight years of NASA’s first manned mission – the flight of Alan Shepard on Freedom 7 in 1961 – the crew of Apollo 11 had walked on the Moon. NASA used the systems, including the massive Saturn V, to not only carry out six lunar landings but also to launch Skylab – the United States’ first space station – as well as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (flown on a Saturn 1B and Soyuz rocket). In fact, Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo (as well as the Apollo Applications Program efforts) lasted from 1961 through 1975 – some 14 years.
The reply was the program that the SLS and Orion are designed to support are very long term. However, as Marcia Dunn, with the Associated Press noted, the SLS and Orion have been in development for an extensive period (SLS can trace its lineage back through the Ares V super-heavy-lift rocket, which entered development in 2004–2005).
William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s current Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, downplayed the issues that EM-1 has encountered and said that the White House’s request for this study actually benefited the program as a whole as it allowed NASA to take a step back and review the progress that has been made to date.
“The team has done a fantastic job of really looking at all of the technical considerations that go into this, the ability to put [a] crew on EM-1 and look at our baseline plans in a very, very detailed manner,” Gerstenmaier said. “We typically don’t get the chance to step back in the middle of production and development and take a good hard look at a program, so this is good for them to go back and take a look at our activities, see where we had some weaknesses in our plans when they were built several years ago, and say, ‘hey, there are some things that we could do a bit better…’.”
Gerstenmaier went on to note that the tornado had a significant impact on the program’s development, and both of the officials stressed that what NASA is trying to develop is a long-term, flexible program capable of sending astronauts to destinations such as the Moon, Mars, the moons of Mars, and more. They highlighted that this was not a “one-off” mission and should be viewed as a larger whole. He also noted that a new mobile launcher was being considered among other options that the agency was reviewing.
President Trump’s comments about NASA sending crews to Mars in his first or (potential) second term were downplayed. One interesting fact released during the teleconference was that an estimated cost of some $600 million to $900 million would be needed to have crew fly on EM-1.
Also detailed during the teleconference on Friday, June 12, was the recent incident involving the qualification oxygen tank with the dome portion of the tank being rammed into eight fixtures. Gerstenmaier noted that this was a “significant” incident with the damage to the dome resulting in what NASA qualifies as a “Class B Mishap” – resulting in the damage to the dome being non-repairable.
NASA has other domes which can be used in the place of the one that was involved in this incident.
Moreover, the issues that various issues that NASA has encountered on its “Journey to Mars” will likely push the first crewed flight of the SLS and Orion – Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2) – from August 2021 to an, as yet, unknown date.
NewSpace companies have announced that they can achieve some of the goals NASA has planned for its exploration initiatives faster, better, and cheaper than traditional efforts. Also, SpaceX has publicly stated that it will fly two tourists around the Moon a full year before the SLS is set to conduct EM-1.
Therefore, the media is frequently asked why NASA isn’t using those systems instead, as was noted by veteran space reporter Bill Harwood with CBS.
“[…] we’re taking a very measured but expedient, as we can make it, approach: to put the key pieces into place the infrastructure that makes sense for us on the government side of things by a variety of commercial and international partners to advance their objectives in space,” Gerstenmaier replied.
Lightfoot reinforced Gerstenmaier’s words by stating that this wasn’t an “or” proposition; it was one that required “all” of the current players involved in space and that NASA was excited to have enabled companies such as SpaceX.
When asked about how much NASA had spent, to date, on the SLS, Gerstenmaier expressed the need for caution in how this effort was viewed. He noted that it wasn’t just for a single mission but rather an endeavor to develop and build the overall infrastructure required to allow humanity to reclaim its ability to explore beyond low-Earth orbit.
Moreover, he also stated that the SLS’ purpose is to put into place a foundation in which multiple destinations can be reached – one which was far different than the six missions to the Moon carried out under Apollo. Gerstenmaier referred to it as a “multi-decadal infrastructure that allows for a human presence to move out into the Solar System”.
Gerstenmaier said: “In the case of the lunar activity (the Apollo Program), it was a very focused singular activity to accomplish one goal with a fairly high budget startup and ramp-up to go do that single activity; it was focused to do one objective – land men on the Moon. Now we’re building an infrastructure that supports more than one destination; this allows us to operate in the vicinity of the Moon.
“If an international partner or commercial company wants to do activities on the surface of the Moon, the infrastructure that we’ll have put into place can support that; if we want to go to Mars, we can go to Mars; if we want to go to the moons of Mars, we can do that with this capability. So I think that we’re putting a much more robust foundation into place that can support multiple objectives into place – and that, naturally, takes a little longer than a sprint to a single destination.”
SpaceFlight Insider asked about some of the issues that have impacted the SLS. One of the things that he noted was that NASA’s vendor and second-tier supplier base isn’t what it used to be – causing supply shortages. Essentially, items with a low demand now have substantial orders to support this program.
EM-1 is planned to last 21 days and, as it is unmanned, will push the Orion spacecraft’s systems to their limits when it carries out its first flight integrated onto the SLS. Orion has flown once before, atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, on December 5, 2014. The mission was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37 and saw Orion complete two orbits and returned to Earth at some 20,000 miles per hour (32,187 km/h).
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.