Financial challenges are causing NASA to most likely postpone its first two exploration missions to Mars — EM-1 and EM-2. The impending delay was announced by the agency's Office of Inspector General.
NASA officials also state the agency's plan to send astronauts to Mars has met technical difficulties as well.
Initially scheduled for November 2018, the two launches of the Orion spacecraft aboard the Space Launch System (SLS) will probably have to wait a while longer, as NASA strives to overcome the hurdles of preparing for the intrepid journey to the red planet.
EM-1 And EM-2
The first exploratory mission to Mars, EM-1, is currently set to send the Orion capsule — which will be unmanned during its first mission — into lunar orbit next year, at the beginning of November.
The second trip beyond Earth's orbit, EM-2, is to follow it soon afterward. Scheduled for August 2021, this will be the first crewed mission of the Orion on the SLS mega rocket.
Nevertheless, a nine-month audit undertaken by NASA disclosed a series of predicaments connected with both the Orion and the SLS rocket, as well as associated ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"NASA's initial exploration missions on its Journey to Mars — EM-1 and EM-2 — face multiple cost and technical challenges that likely will affect their planned launch dates," NASA officials said in a statement.
Mars Mission Challenges: Software And Design Setbacks
The agency's report shows the technical problems are linked to the service module developed for the Orion capsule, which was supplied entirely by the European Space Agency. Work on the service module has been delayed, setting the entire mission off schedule.
In addition, the capsule's heat shield has suffered some design modifications. As per NASA's report, these changes can potentially pose a technical risk to the mission's success.
Another complication revealed by the audit is the lag in software development for the SLS — the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built. Software setbacks were also reported for the Orion and the ground systems.
"We are concerned NASA will not be able to resolve all necessary software validation and verification efforts in time to meet a November 2018 launch date for EM-1," the report said.
Financial Struggles Regarding The SLS And Orion Capsule
NASA's human exploration missions to Mars may also face budget and time constraints. Work on the SLS has already consumed nearly all of the 11 months of schedule reserve it originally had. The remaining 30 more days of scheduled work time may prove insufficient to meet the November 2018 launch date.
The total cost of the Orion, SLS, and ground systems is expected to reach $23 billion, while EM-2 alone will likely exceed the sum of $33 billion.
Furthermore, to achieve the goal of sending astronauts near Mars in the 2030s, NASA needs to complete the development of "a deep space habitat, in-space transportation, and Mars landing and ascent vehicles" during the next decade, the audit report notes.