NASA delays debut launch of $23 billion moon rocket and capsul

Terry Joseph
May 13, 2017

Excited for Mars? Here's some cold water to throw on those hopes and dreams: NASA has officially pushed the date for Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the first integrated test flight of the Orion deep-space crew vehicle and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, to 2019. The first launch had been targeted for next year, but now won't happen until 2019 when NASA will send an unoccupied Orion capsule to the vicinity of the moon for a three-week trial run.

Nasa's Space Launch System (SLS) 70 metric tonnes configuration is seen launching to space in this undated artist's rendering released August 2, 2014.

While this delay means that the next-generation NASA rocket won't fly with humans until the next decade, it does not mean there will be no crewed launches from US facilities before then.

Even without a crew, the SLS will not be ready to blast off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida until 2019, Lightfoot said, adding that the agency would have a more specific timeframe in about a month.

"Any time you are trying to rapidly add capabilities, you are asking for trouble in a system like this", said Casey Dreier, director of space policy at The Planetary Society, which lobbies for greater funding of space science and exploration.

An artistic rendering of the Orion crew capsule.

In any case, EM-2, featuring an astronaut crew, would be launched atop a Block 1B SLS rocket in the late 2021 timeframe.

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"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".

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. Lightfoot told reporters on Friday afternoon that the space agency and the Trump administration made the decision not to pursue a crewed mission for EM-1 together. Gerstenmaier said NASA needs more time to determine that date and will in a month or two.

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. We're creating an incredible capability for this country - one from which future generations will continue to benefit - and we need to get it right now for the long term.

The Block 1 version features an interim upper stage derived from Boeing's Delta 4 rocket powered by a single hydrogen-fueled Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10B2 engine.

The effort confirmed that the baseline plan to fly EM-1 without crew is still the best approach to enable humans to move sustainably beyond low Earth orbit.

The second flight will have astronauts on board.

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