NASA studying the possibility of adding crew to EM-1
In a press release issued on Feb. 15, 2017, Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, announced that he was ordering a study on the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). This would mark a significant change from the agency’s current mission roadmap, which has EM-1 flying uncrewed in 2018, with crew ultimately launching several years later on EM-2.
What does this mean?
Currently, the only information that can be confirmed is that Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA, has been tasked with initiating a study on the workability of converting EM-1 from an uncrewed shakedown flight to a crewed mission.
The flight hardware for EM-1 is already well into the manufacturing stage and the ground support facilities are being upgraded by NASA’s Ground Systems Development Office (GSDO). Indeed, even the Orion crew vehicle has been undergone a successful test flight.
However, the fully integrated vehicle has yet to take flight. Although NASA has historically not placed crew on the maiden flight of a spacecraft, there is a precedent for it: the Space Shuttle.
Why the accelerated timetable for crew?
Unfortunately, things become less clear when one wants to know why Lightfoot made this announcement. Certainly, many have been curious how the SLS may fare after Donald Trump was elected President. Trump’s NASA “landing team” was a relatively even mix of commercial and governmental spaceflight proponents, so it wasn’t readily apparent if the new administration had a particular direction in mind for the space agency.
Shortly following Trump’s victory, NASA released a “Request for Information” (RFI) in November 2016 seeking input on “[…] maximizing the long-term efficiency and sustainability of the Exploration Systems Development (ESD) programs, including the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) by minimizing production, operations, and maintenance (POM) costs.”
With the businessman-turned-politician making early waves over the costs of some government programs – notably Air Force One and the F-35 – some have speculated the RFI was an effort to reduce the cost of NASA’s big rocket in hopes to not incur a similar critique from the new commander in chief.
Moreover, with the time between the first mission for the SLS on EM-1 and astronauts finally taking flight on EM-2 being at least three years (possibly five), there may have been concern that the new president wouldn’t look too favorably on the expensive program.
In 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report questioning NASA’s ability to meet the November 2018 launch readiness date. This led to speculation that NASA was going to have a difficult time meeting the 2018 launch date for EM-1, and that a slip to early to mid-2019 wasn’t unreasonable.
For its part, the U.S. House of Representatives seems to want to see NASA back on a Moon-centered course. To that end, HR 870 – the REAL Space Act – presented on Feb. 3, 2017, would direct NASA back to the Moon and to build a sustained presence there. Although the legislation has yet to leave committee, it has nonetheless led some to believe a shift for the agency is forthcoming.
Mother Nature also seems to have wanted to have a say in NASA’s SLS production. On the afternoon of Feb. 7, 2017, a tornado struck the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana, damaging several buildings at the SLS-manufacturing complex.
In a Feb. 10, 2017, release, the agency stated that the “[…] SLS and Orion tooling and hardware that has been assessed so far is undamaged.” However, as of the writing of this article, it is unclear whether ALL of the flight hardware and tools had escaped the twister unscathed.
Should an important piece of manufacturing capability be sidelined, or a critical piece of flight hardware be damaged, further doubt could be cast on NASA’s ability to meet the 2018 launch date.
Boeing, the agency’s prime contractor for the SLS’ core stage, favors the new approach.
“The possibility of NASA accelerating the timeline to put humans into the vicinity of the Moon and onto Mars is exciting,” said Boeing spokesperson Patricia Soloveichik, in a statement from the company. “In any course, safety of the crew will be the most important factor. We applaud NASA’s bold path forward in this transition time and we’re proud to be a part of the journey to Mars.”
Indeed, even commercial proponents have been publicly supportive of NASA’s super heavy-lift vehicle. The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a long detractor of the SLS, has now voiced support for NASA’s rocket.
What happens next?
Support from the industry notwithstanding, it’s evident NASA has quite a job ahead of it if a crew is to fly on EM-1. As of yet, it’s unclear what changes may need to be made to the vehicle in order to safely carry astronauts.
Unquestionably, a robust life support system is critical, but the list of “unknown unknowns” is likely to grow over the course of Gerstenmaier’s investigations.
Nevertheless, the prospect of American astronauts returning to space beyond low-Earth orbit has raised the level of excitement about the forthcoming mission. Only time will tell if the announcement is simply a public relations blip or the start of humankind’s sustained deep space existence.
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.