NASA generally proceeds slowly and incrementally — especially when human beings are blasted into space. But President Trump apparently wants to do something bold with the space program, and his team has asked NASA to consider speeding up a long-planned moon mission.
So NASA has launched a feasibility study to see what the risks and benefits would be if the agency added two astronauts to the first test flight of a new rocket and capsule.
That flight, Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1, is scheduled for November 2018. The new Space Launch System rocket would blast off with a new Orion capsule on top. The Orion would orbit the moon, undergoing a kind of stress test, and then return to Earth, re-entering the atmosphere at tremendous speed and splashing down in an ocean.
NASA's current plan is to do this with mannequins aboard.
Only after this shakedown mission would it then put live astronauts into Orion and send them on toward the moon. That second mission is not scheduled until 2021.
On Friday, two NASA officials held a teleconference with reporters to discuss the feasibility study, and they avoided signaling whether they think adding astronauts to a test flight is a good idea.
“I don’t have a preconceived position as to whether I'm for this or against this,” said William Gerstenmaier, an associate administrator who is the top official for human spaceflight. Echoing that sentiment was William Hill, a deputy associate administrator: “We will let the identified risk and benefits drive this, as well as the data.”
Gerstenmaier said the first flight, if astronauts are involved, would probably last eight or nine days.
The officials made clear that changing the current plan, and adding a crew to the first test flight, would increase the mission risk. Gerstenmaier said there are ways to limit the risk, including putting the Orion in an Earth orbit for a day or so to ensure that the life-support systems were working properly. If necessary, at that point the flight to the moon could be aborted. “We might lose the mission, but we could still protect the crew,” he said.
Gerstenmaier said adding a crew would offer benefits: “We’ll get a chance to test systems in a very rigorous way with a crew on board.” Hill seemed to contradict that a few minutes later, saying that NASA would like to “stress the systems” on Orion in the initial flight, “which we probably wouldn’t do with a crew on board.”
The feasibility study should be complete in about a month. Adding a crew would probably push a launch date for EM-1 into 2019, Gerstenmaier said. If it proves impossible to launch with a crew aboard by late 2019, he said, NASA would stick to the current plan of a crew on EM-2 in 2021.
Trump has shown an interest in President John F. Kennedy's vow more than half a century ago to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, and, eyeing his reelection prospects, Trump could potentially announce some kind of ambitious space mission for NASA, likely in combination with entrepreneurial space companies.
But a lot remains uncertain at NASA, including the top leadership posts. Trump and his team have yet to nominate anyone to run the agency, and NASA is currently guided by acting administrator Robert Lightfoot, a civil servant.