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NASA nixes crew for test flight of new megarocket in 2019

13 May 2017

"NASA said Friday it will not crew the Orion spacecraft that will be launched in two years atop a super heavy Space Launch System (SLS) rocket due to associated risks and costs".

In February at the request of the White House, NASA began studying the possibility of putting a crew on the first flight.

The first flight of NASA's expensive new deep-space rocket is going to be delayed again, and it won't have any astronauts aboard, the agency announced Friday.

During a conversation recently with astronauts aboard the International Space Station, Trump said he wanted to send astronauts to Mars in his first term, or by the end of his second term "at worst" - but the manner of his comment suggested that he was either joking or simply was speaking off the cuff with minimal grasp of the technical challenges of a Mars mission.

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The pushback to 2019 was not unexpected - there had already been grumblings that indicated there was no way NASA would meet its original 2018 launch date.

The long-range plan is to use the SLS to send astronauts beyond the moon in the mid 2020s before eventual flights to Mars. It is scheduled for 2021, but will nearly certainly be later because of all the delays with the first flight.

Concerns about containing costs, improving the heat shield on the spacecraft, and adding life support systems to the spaceship all factored into the decision, he told reporters on a conference call.

"It's really consistent with our available resources, and while it still has technical risk, we have a good handle on that and how an uncrewed mission will actually help EM-2 be a safer mission when we put crew on there". Friday afternoon's announcement was held because NASA had just wrapped up a study looking into how feasible it might be to turn EM-1 from an uncrewed mission to a crewed one. "We're really building a system", Gerstenmaier said.

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As part of the assessment, NASA also reviewed the schedule for EM-1, including production schedules across the enterprise, anticipated budgets and appropriations, and the ongoing impact of the February tornado that directly affected the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana. No one was injured in the May 3 mishap. But the bottom dome for a liquid oxygen tank was ruined.

As of 2016, the crewed EM-2 flight was scheduled to take place in 2021, but Gerstenmaier said there would be a minimum of 33 months between EM-1 and EM-2. The current exploration effort will cost almost $24 billion by the end of fiscal 2018, the GAO reported. The SLS rocket is meant to support flights to not only the moon and Mars, but the moons of Mars and even farther into the solar system, with potential commercial activity as well. "Blue Origin, it's more about the past way of doing business vs. how do we run the government more like a business", Larson said. That NASA would even try to accommodate United States presidential Donald Trump's hope to see human passengers on what was meant to be an unmanned mission surprised many observers, given NASA's traditionally deliberate and risk-reducing approach to human spaceflight. SpaceX chief Elon Musk also aims to colonize Mars.

Lightfoot said the SLS team has yet to confirm the formal launch date for EM-1, but will likely do so within the next few months.

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NASA nixes crew for test flight of new megarocket in 2019