NASA is working on a risk analysis report over sending astronauts on the maiden flight of the most powerful rocket — the Space Launch System or SLS in the integrated flight with the Orion spacecraft.
SLS is tipped to fly crews to Mars as well. The human exploration chief of NASA said the Trump administration and NASA top management had sought a feasibility report on expediting the manned mission.
NASA has set a late 2018 liftoff plan for the Saturn V-class SLS with an unmanned Orion crew capsule to fly around the moon.
Launch Of Astronauts
But there is a realization that even if taking the crew in the flight would entail some delay, it will speed up the system's first launch of astronauts set for 2021.
NASA's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, in a memo to employees, explored the new idea by noting that he understands the challenges associated with such a proposition including the extra work on a different launch date.
"That said, I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space," Lightfoot added.
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. At least a lunar flyby at the earliest is expected by the administration.
Report In March
NASA will finalize its report in a month. The rocket's debut flight plan at the moment entails no astronauts on board until 2021. If astronauts have to be taken on board, the mission will be delayed besides escalating the costs.
"This is an assessment and not a decision as the primary mission for EM-1 remains an uncrewed flight test," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of human explorations.
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.
He denied any pressure on the agency regarding the induction of crew ahead of schedule and said no funding or time guidelines have been provided. The risk analysis by NASA will weigh all risks and gains, Gerstenmaier stressed.
He said the agency will be weighing the safety risks associated with the launch versus the benefits.
Caution By Safety Panel
Meanwhile, a recent report of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel advised NASA that only a compelling reason should warrant sending astronauts on the initial flight.
The panel was constituted after the Apollo 1 fire tragedy in 1967 in which three astronauts were killed during a countdown test.
NASA normally tests rockets without people on board, with a lone exception being the space shuttle debut flight of 1981 that carried two pilots on board.
The capsule meant to carry the astronauts already had a space demo. Carrying memorabilia and toys with no personnel, the capsule zoomed into an orbit of Earth in 2014 after being powered by a Delta IV rocket.
Exploration Mission-1 Highlights
The ambition is to "launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown," according to NASA.
After orbiting the moon, the EM1 will bring data to Earth for making the groundwork for a Mars trip.
However, William Hill, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration, said sending a crew on EM-1 will broaden possibilities on EM-2.