NASA Denies Trump’s Request to Send Astronauts Past the Moon on New Rocket
When NASA launches its new big rocket for the first time — more than a year and a half from now, at the earliest — there will be no astronauts along for the ride.
In February, at the request of the Trump administration, NASA began studying whether it was possible to add crew for the first flight of its Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket under development for deep space missions.
On Friday, the space agency announced it would not. During a conference call with reporters, Robert M. Lightfoot Jr., the acting NASA administrator, said the change was technically feasible, but that the additional cost, time and risks outweighed the benefits. “It really reaffirmed the baseline plan we have in place is the best way to go,” he said.
Putting astronauts on the first flight would have added $600 million to $900 million to the $24 billion price tag, Mr. Lightfoot said, and delayed the launch until probably the first half of 2020.
Including astronauts would have also required significant work, like adding a fully operational life-support system to the Orion crew capsule, where the astronauts would have been seated.
Even without that additional work, Mr. Lightfoot announced that the launch date has slipped again, to 2019 from the previous target of November 2018, because of various technical challenges and some bad luck. In February, a tornado struck the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana, where pieces of the rocket are being built, damaging the roof and equipment.
“That really set us back in a big way,” said William H. Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for the human exploration and operations directorate at NASA.
This month, a big dome-shaped piece at Michoud was badly damaged while being moved; it was to become the bottom of a liquid oxygen tank that will be used for testing. “It’s probably not repairable,” Mr. Gerstenmaier said. But there are additional domes, and Mr. Gerstenmaier said he did not expect that to add much to the delay.
The construction of the European Space Agency’s contribution to the rocket — a service module that will provide propulsion, power and supplies for the Orion capsule — is also behind schedule.
NASA will now follow its original plan. For the first flight, Orion is to fly thousands of miles beyond the moon during a three-week trip. Mr. Gerstenmaier said one advantage of a crewless mission is that it will allow more thorough testing, closer to the edge of the capabilities of the spacecraft. “We will push as hard as we can,” he said.
The second flight, the first with astronauts, will come about three years later. It is scheduled for August 2021, but will also likely be delayed.
The delays will add to the skepticism of those who think the Space Launch System and Orion will be obsolete by the time they get to the launchpad.
SpaceX, the rocket company started by Elon Musk, is planning to finally launch this summer its long-delayed Falcon Heavy rocket. The Falcon Heavy is not as powerful as the Space Launch System, but with a $90 million price tag, far cheaper. The Space Launch System, which would launch only about once every two years, is estimated to cost $1 billion per mission.
Blue Origin, a rocket company started by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is also developing a large rocket called New Glenn, which may begin launching as soon as 2020.
The Trump administration’s preliminary budget proposal for 2018 keeps NASA’s financing level almost unchanged, while it includes deep cuts to many other agencies. The administration has not offered many details of its plans for NASA in the coming years.
At a symposium in Washington this month about efforts to speed the development of much cheaper, fully reusable rockets, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who has advised President Trump on various issues including space, described the Space Launch System as less capable than the Saturn 5 rocket that took astronauts to the moon in 1969, yet far more expensive.
“The handwriting is on the wall,” Mr. Gingrich said. “Those kinds of programs are going to look stupid.”