NASA is mulling on the idea of sending astronauts on an untested rocket around the moon following a request from the Trump administration.
White House Request For Manned Exploration Mission 1 Flight
NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations Bill Gerstenmaier said in a news conference on Friday, Feb. 24 that the White House has asked the U.S. space agency to look at either including human crew to the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) flight or advancing the launch of EM-2. The launch of the crewed EM-1 flight could happen as early as 2019.
EM-1 is set to be the first test flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which will be used to send an uncrewed Orion capsule into deep space.
Sending human crew onboard the Orion/SLS rocket is not part of current plans. The schedule is for NASA to send humans aboard the rocket on the EM-2 mission by 2021 but the new administration told NASA to speed up the process and see if it is possible to send humans to the moon on the debut flight of the rocket.
The space agency has not sent astronauts beyond low Earth orbit since the final moon missions more than 40 years ago. NASA astronauts currently even have to rely on Russian spacecraft for transportation to and from the International Space Station.
The prospective mission would involve two crew members aboard an Orion capsule on a mission around the moon similar to the Apollo 8 flight in 1968.
Apollo 8, which was launched on Dec. 21, 1968, is the second manned mission under the Apollo space program. It was the first manned mission to leave the Earth's orbit, reach the moon, orbit the lunar orb, and return safely to Earth.
The three crew members of the mission, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders were the first to travel beyond the low Earth orbit, the first to directly see the far side of the moon, and the first to see our home planet as a whole.
"What I hear being discussed is the potential for sometime within the first Trump term being able to go and do an Apollo 8 mission," said former congressman Bob Walker, who chaired the House Science Committee and an adviser to Trump's transition team.
"This would be another precursor to ultimately landing. And I think sometime within a second Trump term, you could think about putting a landing vehicle on the moon," Walker added.
Compelling Reasons To Make EM-1 A Manned Flight
Despite the request from the White House, NASA's independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel said on Thursday, Feb. 23, that there should be compelling reasons to add human crew to the EM-1 mission given the extra cost this would entail and the risk to human life.
"If the benefits warrant assumption of additional risk, we expect NASA to clearly and openly articulate their decision-processing rationale," said Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel head Patricia Sanders, who also advised that the space agency carefully and cautiously weigh the value proposition for making EM-1 a manned mission.