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Panel urges caution as NASA studies flying crew on first SLS

27 February 2017

If approved, the astronauts would fly aboard an Orion capsule, under development by Lockheed Martin Corp, and swing around the moon during an eight- to nine-day mission, similar to what the Apollo 8 crew accomplished in 1968.

The Trump administration has directed NASA to study whether it is feasible to fly astronauts on the debut flight of the agency's heavy-lift rocket, a mission now planned to be unmanned and targeted to launch in late 2018, officials said on Friday. It will launch an Orion space capsule on a route that would take it around our celestial neighbor and then back to Earth.

But Trump, who has yet to appoint a new NASA administrator, wants to speed up the mission and wants to see whether two astronauts can make the flight, even though the agency's heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion deep-space capsule have yet to go through all the necessary safety testing required on the systems. Moving up the timeline will require additional resources to develop and test multiple new systems at once, from life support to emergency escape capabilities. NASA plans to send the spacecraft into a distant lunar retrograde orbit during the first mission of SLS and Orion.

Under that plan, Gerstenmaier said, almost three years are needed between an unmanned flight test and a crewed mission to make launch platform changes at Kennedy Space Center.

Beyond the time and money, some worry about the additional risk as well.

"This study will determine how much additional time is needed ... to add crew to EM-1", Gerstenmaier said. "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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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.

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.

NASA will finalize its report in a month.

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".