Spaceflight Insider

NASA OIG: SLS unlikely to launch in 2018

An artist's illustration of NASA's SLS rocket launching from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39B. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

An artist’s illustration of NASA’s SLS rocket launching from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

The NASA Office of Inspector General has issued an audit detailing that the space agency’s Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) will likely not take to the Florida skies in 2018. However, this might be a moot point as NASA is considering flying EM-1 with a crew, which would push the launch to 2019 at the earliest. These are just some of a myriad of issues facing the first flight of the agency’s new super-heavy-lift launch system.

The 77-page report, titled NASA’s Plans For Human Exploration Beyond Low Earth Orbit, was released on Thursday, April 13. It noted that the first astronauts to use the rocket as their means of transportation to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit will likely not do so until 2021 at the earliest.

James Vaughan illustration of SLS Launch

Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

It is unclear what impact the request made by NASA’s acting Administrator, Robert Lightfoot, to look into what it would take to have EM-1 be a crewed flight will have on this mission or its eventual launch date.

Crew safety is something that NASA and its fleet of contractors take seriously and, as such, concerns for the well-being of astronauts who will use the Orion spacecraft (which will be launched atop the SLS) were also reviewed in the OIG document. According to page 25 of the report:

To achieve a crewed EM-1 flight, in our judgment NASA must address not only the additional risks associated with human travel but also a host of existing risks to planned missions. For example, as noted earlier in this report, NASA is working to mitigate risks relating to the Orion’s environmental control system and to the EUS for the current EM-2 flight profile scheduled to launch no earlier than 2021 and more likely in 2023. Even if NASA does not use the EUS on an accelerated EM-1 crewed flight, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage will need to be certified to carry astronauts, and significantly the integrated SLS/Orion system, Orion’s heat shield, and ESD software will not undergo a test flight before astronauts are placed on board.

Meanwhile, representatives from the space agency have noted that NASA is monitoring a wide range of factors that could potentially impact the super-heavy-lift rocket’s first flight.

“NASA is reviewing the production schedules across the enterprise, taking into account factors such as integrated manufacturing, test, and processing schedules based on assumptions relating to FY 2017 appropriations and the President’s 2018 budget request, projection of European Service Module delivery, first time production issues related to the core stage, and the historic tornado that directly impacted the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in Louisiana in February,” NASA’s Bob Jacobs told SpaceFlight Insider. “Following this review, NASA will update the integrated schedule and the EM-1 launch readiness date.”

As Jacobs noted, EM-1 has been dealt delays both from partnerships and nature. In February of this year, 2017, NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) was struck by a tornado. The MAF is where the core stage of the agency’s SLS booster is being produced.

Meanwhile, another delay, one involving the Orion spacecraft, has cropped up with the vehicle’s Service Module that is being produced by the European Space Agency (ESA). The OIG report noted in its September 2016 report that it has undergone design changes and will likely be delivered to NASA five to 10 months later than planned.

“Because the new Orion service module differs from the module flown during the first Orion test flight in December 2014, assembly integration, and processing of the new module may delay the transfer of Orion to the [Ground Systems Development and Operations] program for integration with the SLS,” the report reads.

Indeed, representatives with NASA have stated that these issues will likely cause the flight of EM-1 to “likely slide well into 2019”.

The OIG also noted that the cost for the space agency’s proposed “Journey to Mars” will be an expensive one if the U.S. opts to undertake the effort unilaterally. According to the OIG:

In addition to the technical and health-related challenges of deep space missions, such a multi-decadal venture will be very expensive, with NASA’s budget projections for human exploration to Mars exceeding $210 billion by 2033.

However, NASA representatives have repeatedly noted that any mission(s) to Mars would and should likely be international affairs – something on the order of what the U.S. space agency has planned will require the contributions of multiple countries.

At present, NASA is operating under a two-tiered approach to crewed space exploration. Private companies Boeing and SpaceX are developing their CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, while NASA will use the SLS to explore much farther than low-Earth orbit that these private firms would operate in.

 

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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.

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