NASA said on Friday that it will not fly astronauts on Orion-SLS test flight around the moon. The first ever flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) is scheduled for 2019 and NASA clarified that it will not include a human crew.
In 2016, NASA expected the SLS’ first flight to take place in 2018, without any astronauts on board. However, the transition team that the Trump administration sent to NASA earlier this year asked to evaluate the possibility of launching a crew inside the Orion space capsule.
EM-1 was decided to remain as an uncrewed mission
In light of the request, Robert Lightfoot, NASA acting administrator, stated during a news conference that based on the results of the internal evaluation, a manned flight would be “feasible,” but they prefer to proceed with initial plans of making the SLS’ first flight uncrewed.
“[The internal evaluation] really reaffirmed that the baseline plan we had in place was the best way for us to go,” said Lightfoot, according to Space. “We have a good handle on how that uncrewed mission will actually help [the first crewed mission of SLS] be a safer mission when we put crew on there.”
The Space Launch System rocket’s first flight will be called Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) and will launch the uncrewed Orion capsule on an estimated three-week long trip around the moon. The Orion capsule has already been tested, as it was sent on an uncrewed test flight aboard the United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket in December 2014. Orion’s first crewed flight, or EM-2, was initially scheduled to launch in 2021.
Dates for EM-1 and EM-2 launches are yet to be decided
Lightfoot said NASA has been observing program for EM-1 for a while now, as several issues have delayed multiple aspects of the mission, such as the tornado damage caused to NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans earlier this year. The mission was delayed as the core system and primary propulsion system of the SLS, as well as pieces of the Orion spacecraft, were scheduled to be built in the New Orleans facility.
“When we did the crew study, it shined a little brighter light on what we needed to do moving forward,” said Lightfoot. “We now know we’re going to have to move that [EM-1 launch] date into 2019.”
Lightfoot noted that the decisions regarding the mission were made jointly by NASA and the White House. He added that the SLS team has yet to confirm the actual launch for EM-1 and that it will be probably be disclosed within the next few months.
The delay consequently postpones the expected launch of EM-2, according to Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations for NASA. According to Gerstenmaier, the manned EM-2 flight was originally scheduled for 2021, but he noted that there has to be a minimum of 33 months between EM-1 and EM-2. He added that the precise date of EM-2 might not be announced until after EM-1 launches.