NASA Will Consider Adding Crew to Next-Gen Rocket's Debut Launch

Alicia Guzman
February 27, 2017

NASA is working on a risk analysis report over sending astronauts on the maiden flight of the most powerful rocket - the Space Launch System or SLS in the integrated flight with the Orion spacecraft.

But NASA's acting administrator Robert Lightfoot asked on February 15 for the space agency to study the feasibility of putting people on board, and the findings of that study are expected in the coming months.

The prospective mission would have a two-member crew fly in an Orion capsule on an eight- to nine-day mission around the moon, similar to the flight of Apollo 8 in 1968.

But such a change may be easier said than done. It is building new deep space capabilities to take humans farther into the solar system, to Mars. And that testing won't be cheap.

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The Orion spacecraft has not been fully upgraded to support human passengers since its first test flight in December 2014 (atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket).

And money alone won't get the job done.

The Trump administration has directed NASA to study whether it is feasible to fly astronauts on the debut flight of the agency's heavy-lift rocket, a mission now planned to be unmanned and targeted to launch in late 2018, officials said on Friday.

While the new mission wouldn't be filled with groundbreaking scientific firsts like its predecessor was almost 50 years ago, it could offer advantages to NASA.

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The feasibility study will also determine how much more time and funding would be required for the mission, should it include a crew. At least a lunar flyby at the earliest is expected by the administration.

Quartz writer Tim Fernholz raises another question: Is this the best use of taxpayers dollars, given the rise of private space companies?

"We recognize this will be an increased risk", said Mr. Gerstenmaier "We take that increased risk, and we take it against the benefits we gain by doing this, and we say, 'Is that something that is worthwhile for us to go and do?' Then we have an agency-wide discussion on whether this is an appropriate risk for us to take". "If the benefits warrant assumption of additional risk, we expect NASA to clearly and openly articulate their decision-processing rationale", Patricia Sanders, head of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said at a meeting at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Flying astronauts on a rocket's debut flight would be a departure from NASA precedence.

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