I am writing to provide an update on the study regarding the feasibility of putting crew on the first integrated flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft - Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). Soon after the inauguration, Trump political appointees showed up at NASA headquarters and met with the veteran civil servants running the agency and reviewed NASA's human spaceflight program.
"EM-1 will go to a distant retrograde orbit around the moon", said William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of NASA's Human Explorations and Operations.
The first flight of NASA's expensive new deep-space rocket is going to be delayed again, and it won't have any astronauts aboard, the agency announced Friday. "This is an "and" proposition, this is not an 'or, '" Lightfoot said.
"While it's technically feasible, they really reaffirmed that the baseline plan we had in place was the best way to go", Lightfoot said in a teleconference with reporters.
This is not happening quickly. The delays are largely due to technical issues encountered during the development of SLS and Orion, as well as tornado damage to the rocket's manufacturing plant in New Orleans.By the end of the next fiscal year on September 30, 2018, NASA will have spent $23 billion on the rocket, capsule, launch site and support systems, according to an audit by NASA's Office of Inspector General.
Lightfoot emphasized that programs like Apollo were built with a singular goal in mind, and given an incredibly high budget to accomplish this. Technicians were lowering the dome for the bottom of a liquid oxygen tank, when the dome ended up ramming into a support structure. "This was a significant event for us", Gerstenmaier said. Gerstenmaier headed the team studying the possibility of adding crew to the first flight, and the conference is being called to discuss the status of the first flight.
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NASA has been struggling with delays and development problems on both Orion and the behemoth SLS, initially scheduled to fly a year ago. "It's unfortunate, but predictable", Phillip Larson, a former senior advisor for space and innovation in the Obama administration, told BuzzFeed News.
The commercial space sector - including SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, and Blue Origin, owned by Jeffrey P. Bezos (who also owns The Washington Post) - is racing to develop its own rockets that are comparable in scale to the SLS. "Blue Origin, it's more about the past way of doing business vs. how do we run the government more like a business", Larson said.
But it would have cost an extra £465 million ($600 million) to £698 million ($900 million) to put humans on-board, funds the space agency does not have.
President Trump even joked recently, during a video chat with two space station crew members, about launching astronauts to Mars "during my first term or, at worst, during my second term".
"We needed additional funding, and we needed additional time", said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's director of space flight.