NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot has announced a feasibility study into adding crew to NASA’s EM-1 mission.

The announcement came on 15 February, and according to Lightfoot, he has asked William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington to conduct a study into the costs, risks and requirements into adding crew to the Orion Space Capsule, which was slated to launch in unmanned configuration in 2018. The mission would be known as EM-1, and would involve the Orion space capsule to fly 8 orbits around the moon and return to Earth safely in order to test the system.The first manned mission was set to take place in 2021.

The SLS or NASA Space Launch System, is America’s newest space platform which the country hopes will push it back into the Space Race. The USA’s Space Program has been hibernating since the last Space Shuttle launch in 2011, when Shuttle Atlantis launched for the last time on STS-135. Since then, NASA has been sending it’s Astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by commissioning rides from Russian space agency Roscosmos aboard their Soyuz launch system.

The SLS launch stack

The assessment will study the technical feasibility, risks, benefits, resources and additional work required to add crew to the SLS’s first mission.

“Our priority is to ensure the safe and effective execution of all our planned exploration missions with the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket,” said Gerstenmaier. “This is an assessment and not a decision as the primary mission for EM-1 remains an uncrewed flight test.”

The study reportedly details adding 2 crew members to the Orion Space Capsule, and aiming for a launch by mid-2019, although whether or not the administration is capable of meeting such a tight deadline remains uncertain considering the technical challenges that remain. The Orion Space Capsule was launched atop a Delta IV rocket in 2014 as a proof of concept, however the capsule was still missing vital safety and life support systems to make it human-rated. In addition to this, the SLS would still be without it’s Interim Cryogenic Propulsion stage, however NASA has indicated that if the mission suggested by the study were to go ahead, it would be done without it.

The announcement bears strong indications of political influence, with President Donald Trump taking a far more aggressive and risky approach than would have been seen by former president Barack Obama. If NASA were to go ahead with a plan to move the manned mission up to 2019, it would usher in an era that bears marked similarities with the early days of the Space Shuttle. In the late seventies and early eighties, the Shuttle Program was America’s latest attempt to outdo the Russians, as has always been the case in the history of Space Flight. Such was NASA’s zeal to get the Shuttle to Space, that they flew the very first Shuttle mission to space with Bob Crippen and John Young at the controls. It was a move bearing great risk back then, and if NASA ends up adding the crew to the first SLS launch, it will be just as risky. So much so in fact, that NASA’s independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel expressed concern about the study, saying that NASA should weigh the risks very carefully before they decide on the way forward.

“We are not proposing what the outcome of NASA’s assessment should be. But in the assessment we strongly advise that NASA carefully and cautiously weigh the value proposition for flying crew on EM-1,” said Patricia Sanders, the chief of the safety panel.

The study announced by NASA, although very risky, could very well become a reality under the Trump presidency. Only time will tell whether they have the budget, or are capable of bringing the SLS and Orion full circle before the proposed launch in 2019.

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