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First SLS/Orion Launch Slips to 2019, No Crew

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-May-2017
Updated: 12-May-2017 06:51 PM

NASA announced today that its feasibility study of adding a crew to the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew capsule might be technically feasible, but, all things considered, it is better to stick to the original plan of launching it without a crew.  Even then, that flight, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will slip from November 2018 to sometime in 2019, with cascading effects for the next flight, EM-2.

Acting NASA Administrator Robert LIghtfoot and Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier announced the results of the study during a mid-afternoon media teleconference.  Lightfoot was effusive in his praise of the Trump White House for giving NASA the opportunity to look at the possibility of adding crew to EM-1, as well as its support of NASA's programs overall.  He said the decision to stay with the existing "baseline" plan for launching EM-1 without a crew was made jointly by the White House and NASA.

The two officials said that the feasibility study concluded it would cost an additional $600-900 million to put a crew on EM-1 and launch would have slipped into the first part of the year 2020.  Both stressed that the SLS/Orion program is focused on the long term objective of building infrastructure in cislunar space to support sustainable human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.  They cautioned against looking at any one launch individually in terms of either cost or schedule, but to consider the program as a whole.  In that context, and looking at the additional cost, risk, and schedule implications, they concluded that it was better to stick with the original plan.

Even without adding crew to EM-1, the launch date will slip into 2019, they confirmed.   NASA had already indicated such a slip in response to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released two weeks ago.  It did not say then, nor today, when in 2019 they are aiming for.  Gerstenmaier said NASA needs more time to determine that date and will in a month or two.  He cited production challenges and the effects of a February tornado at the Michoud Assembly Facility where the SLS core stage is being built as some of the reasons for the slip.  More generally, he argued that NASA and its industry team have already completed "phenomenal" work both on SLS and Orion and are making good progress building a complex system. 

The delay in the EM-1 launch will affect the next launch, EM-2, as well. NASA has an internal planning date of August 2021 for EM-2, but it will use a different upper stage than EM-1: the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) instead of the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS).  EUS is about 40 feet longer than ICPS and 33 months are required between the two launches to reconfigure the mobile launch platform at Kennedy Space Center to accommodate the EUS.  A new date for EM-2 will be announced several months after the new EM-1 date is determined, Gerstenmaier said.  (NASA officially committed to launching EM-2 in 2023 after the Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) review in 2015, but has been trying to accelerate that to 2021.)

NASA critics sometimes complain that the private sector --  companies like SpaceX -- can move more quickly than a government agency and should be the ones building new rockets for human exploration.  Asked how the agency responds to such criticism, Lightfoot said today as he has in other venues that it is not a matter of NASA "or" the private sector, but NASA "and" the private sector:  "we complement each other."

Gerstenmaier and Lightfoot said that the feasibility study is not in a report format and some of the information is ITAR-sensitive, so there will no public release of what they based their decision on.  They do plan to produce a summary that will be made public, but no time frame was offered for when that will be ready.

SpacePolicyOnline.com's attempts to reach key Members of Congress for reaction to the announcement were unsuccessful, which is not surprising late on a Friday afternoon.  This article will be updated if we get any comments after press time.


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