NASA’s Trump-inspired moon mission is still looking for a reason to exist

Looks good but can we put people on it?
Looks good but can we put people on it?
Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls
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At the behest of the Trump administration, NASA is figuring out if it makes any sense to fly humans on an untested rocket.

Two executives at the US space agency said today they were conducting a study for the White House to see if two astronauts can fly on the first launch of a next-generation rocket, sending them on a nine-day trip around the moon in 2018 or early 2019.

Human flight onboard the new rocket was not originally planned until 2021, to allow for careful testing of its systems. However, the new Trump administration, which has yet to appoint a NASA administrator, told the agency to see how much sooner it could fly humans.

“From my perspective, there’s not pressure to go do this,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration, said when asked about the surprise decision. “This is something we’re going to evaluate. … What do we really gain by putting crew on this flight?”

For this mission, NASA would use the maiden flight of a huge deep-space rocket, still in development, called the Space Launch System, and a spacecraft called Orion. The vehicles are government designs produced by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, respectively.

Developing the the two vehicles costs $3 billion a year, and the rosiest projections suggest annual costs of $2 billion, assuming one launch each year. With commercial rocket firms including United Launch Alliance, SpaceX and Blue Origin promising to put nearly-as-powerful but significantly cheaper products on the market in the years ahead, many wonder if NASA should be putting so much of its resources into projects they may be quickly outmoded.

That context adds to the mystery around why the space agency—without a leader or policy agenda as the Trump era begins—is proposing such a major change to its biggest internal program. The move has been seen by some within the aerospace industry as an attempt to prove the usefulness of the expensive system to an administration eager for public relations victories. That’s especially true as other Trump advisers, like investor Peter Thiel, push Trump to embrace a commercial vision of lunar exploration.

Typically, NASA tries to avoid flying humans on rockets with limited testing or pedigree, though the first-ever flight of the Space Shuttle was manned because it was felt that having test pilots aboard the unique space plane, which flew back down to earth, would be safer for people on the ground. However, that Shuttle was damaged during its mission in ways that could have led to disaster, underscoring the risks of manned spaceflight.

Humans first orbited the moon during the Apollo program, beginning with Apollo 8 in 1968. Repeating the feat may not have huge scientific gains, but Gerstenmaier suggested that astronauts would be able to enhance the testing of the new spacecraft while onboard. Eventually, the goal of the SLS and Orion is to provide US astronauts experience living and working in the space around the moon, preparing the agency for Martian exploration.

The biggest obstacle to putting astronauts onboard the first flight, however, will be money and time. At least some significant refitting would be necessary to accommodate astronauts on the Orion, which was previously intended to fly unmanned, including life support systems and working computer screens.

At Kennedy Space Center, engineers will need to add crew access ramps to the launch pad. And the rocket itself must be upgraded with additional safety features to ensure that it can protect its passengers.

If all of that can’t be completed by 2019, Gerstenmaier said, it made more sense to stick to the original plan of flying humans on the second launch. A NASA team, including an experienced astronaut, will evaluate the options and begin sharing its conclusions in the next month.