NASA Considering Adding Crew to Maiden Flight of New Megarocket

Under former President Barack Obama, the USA space agency was working on the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion deep-space capsule with the aim of sending astronauts to rendezvous with an asteroid in the mid-2020s, followed by a human expedition to Mars in the 2030s.

Gerstenmaier said a gap of three years between an unmanned flight test and a crewed mission is normal as it requires platform preparations at the Kennedy Space Center.

William Hill, NASA's deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development, said they were mulling a plan to put two astronauts on board the first SLS test flight, but added that major challenges would have to be resolved, and more funds would be needed to make that happen. Under the existing plan, a crew would fly aboard the Orion/SLS system on the EM-2 mission in 2021.

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A study on the feasibility of adding a crew to the mission is now underway and is being led by William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington, NASA reports.

NASA's next generation rocket Space Launch System (SLS) is now scheduled to send an unmanned capsule to orbit the Moon, but the White House has asked the government-run space agency to look into the possibility of making the rocket's debut launch a manned mission.

Commenting on the new interest in taking astronauts on board, Bob Walker, space policy adviser to the Trump administration, said an aggressive posture on human space exploration is what the administration is looking at.

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NASA's independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel said in a meeting Thursday (Feb. 23) that the reasons for having astronauts fly on EM-1 must be compelling enough to override the additional cost, schedule and safety risks.

"There's not pressure to go do this", Gerstenmaier said.

This assessment will review the technical feasibility, risks and also benefits.

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The main priority, he said, would be to ensure it can be done while limiting the potential risks to the crew's safety. "If the benefits warrant assumption of additional risk, we expect NASA to clearly and openly articulate their decision process and rationale". The Exploration Mission-2 is an approximately eight-day mission. NASA has described it as the "most powerful rocket in the world". "But in the assessment, we strongly advise that NASA carefully and cautiously weigh the value proposition for flying crew on EM-1".

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