NASA's next Orion flight could be manned
NASA may get back into manned spaceflight sooner than thought. At the direction of NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, a study is being conducted into feasibility of placing a crew of two on the first integrated flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion spacecraft, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), in 2019.
The first manned Orion mission was originally scheduled for 2021 when four astronauts would go on a circumlunar mission after an unmanned EM-1 had carried out a similar test flight. However, the current US administration is keen on pushing forward the timetable and wants to know if such a move is possible before making a final decision.
If astronauts do fly on EM-1, it will require a number of adjustments to the flight plan and modifications to the spacecraft. One likely change will be to discard the EM-1 mission plan in favor of EM-2's, which involves an eight-day flyby of the Moon with a multi-translunar injection with a free return trajectory. In addition, the crew capsule will need to have a life support system installed and all engineering work will have to meet the rigorous and exacting standards for a manned spacecraft. In addition, the space agency is considering moving forward an ascent abort test for Orion.
While the study is being conducted, NASA says that it will continue work on the SLS and Orion at Space Launch Complex 39B and the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. This includes tests on the SLS's largest fuel tank, as well as vibration tests involving spacesuited astronauts in an Orion simulator to determine their ability to handle the controls under launch conditions.
"Our priority is to ensure the safe and effective execution of all our planned exploration missions with the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket," says William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. "This is an assessment and not a decision as the primary mission for EM-1 remains an uncrewed flight test."