The keyword here is ‘looking.’ It’s still big news, though as NASA is officially studying whether or not they can add a crew to the first flight of the Orion deep-space crew capsule and the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS). Acting NASA Administrator Robert M. Lightfoot Jr. made the comments during a speech at a Space Launch System/Orion Suppliers Conference in Washington, D.C.

This shift in NASA’s human spaceflight timeline has its upside and downside. Let’s take a glance at the upside.

American astronauts could return to the moon much sooner. The current plan for the first test flight of the Orion capsule aboard the SLS rocket calls for a launch next Fall. Placing astronauts aboard this first test flight would shift the date of this flight back some, but move the objective of returning to the moon up by several years.

Orion capsule water recovery

Divers practice recovery techniques for the Orion capsule. Credit: NASA

Lightfoot acknowledges the shifting date in a memo to agency employees:

“I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed, and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date.”

Lightfoot is tapping Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, to conduct a feasibility study on what needs to happen to get astronauts aboard the first test flight.

Like I said above, NASA is looking into it. The feasibility study could reveal astronauts can fly during the first test flight. Or, the work still needed could caution NASA to move ahead with unmanned flights as engineers and scientists across Boeing, Lockheed Martin and NASA continue to make the systems safe for human spaceflight.

But don’t rush it. Placing a crew aboard the first joint SLS/Orion flight seems like a bad idea on the surface. But, NASA SpaceFlight points out if the crew does go up during the maiden flight, it would be the first time since STS-1 when John Young and Bob Crippen took the first ride aboard the space shuttle Columbia.

Lightfoot has good reason to acknowledge a different launch date. Lockheed Martin still needs to add a working life support system. That was not going to be added until Orion’s second test flight. We need to make sure the crew we send up there makes it back down.

Orion capsule mock-up

A heat shield attached to an Orion capsule mock-up. Credit: NASA

Boeing would also need to speed up work on Orion’s second stage. The first test was slated to use a Delta 4 rocket upper stage. The problem is that rocket hasn’t been tested for crew missions.

Finally, there’s the issue of funding. The whirlwind of Trump’s first month is leaving much of the policy discussion on the back burner. What does a Trump budget look like? How much is NASA getting? All important issues for the space agency moving forward.

Pushing for humans to go deeper into space quicker could help secure more funding from the government. Right now, NASA is looking into the possibility. We’ll see what the feasibility study reveals and then the actual work needed to turn those study results into reality.


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