NASA to put astronauts on deep space test flight, says report

NASA illustration

The space agency's human exploration chief said today that his boss and the Trump administration asked for the feasibility study.

Initiated in 2011 to take the place of the over-budget and behind-schedule Constellation program as a shuttle replacement, the new super rocket SLS is now scheduled to fly its maiden Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) in late 2018 or early 2019, launching an Orion space capsule on a trajectory that would take it around the moon and back to Earth.

Under the current plan, a crewed SLS mission will follow with EM-2 sometime between 2021 and 2023.

NASA normally tests rockets without people on board, with a lone exception being the space shuttle debut flight of 1981 that carried two pilots on board. "This is an assessment and not a decision as the primary mission for EM-1 remains an un-crewed flight test", he further added. "We might lose the mission, but we could still protect the crew", he said.

NASA is investigating hardware changes associated with the system that will be needed if crew are to be added to EM-1. Moving up the timeline will require additional resources to develop and test multiple new systems at once, from life support to emergency escape capabilities. NASA plans to send the spacecraft into a distant lunar retrograde orbit during the first mission of SLS and Orion. The new EM 1 - 2 hybrid mission would likely fall somewhere between the two dates originally proposed.

Under that plan, Gerstenmaier said, almost three years are needed between an unmanned flight test and a crewed mission to make launch platform changes at Kennedy Space Center. "We also recognize we'll need to add some additional funding".

Under former President Barack Obama, the USA space agency was working on the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion deep-space capsule with the aim of sending astronauts to rendezvous with an asteroid in the mid-2020s, followed by a human expedition to Mars in the 2030s.

After discussions with NASA leadership, Sanders said "the panel has confidence in the approach that NASA is taking for this assessment", and was not pre-judging its outcome.

Quartz writer Tim Fernholz raises another question: Is this the best use of taxpayers dollars, given the rise of private space companies? Echoing that sentiment was William Hill, a deputy associate administrator: "We will let the identified risk and benefits drive this, as well as the data".

NASA will finalize its report in a month.