After much consideration, NASA has finally decided on the fate of the first integrated flight of Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS). Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) will remain an unmanned mission.
Unmanned Mission Affirmed
In February, NASA's Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot Jr. announced that he had asked for a study regarding the feasibility, benefits, risks, amount of additional work, and schedule changes should they decide to add a crew to EM-1.
Now, Lightfoot Jr. announced that NASA will move forward with the original plan and keep EM-1 as an unmanned mission.
Though NASA is technically capable of turning EM-1 into a manned mission, the decision comes after assessing the costs, risks, and the implications of accommodating such huge changes to the mission profile at this point in mission planning.
As it stands, EM-1 has already been delayed due to a number of factors which include both production delays as well as unforeseen setbacks such as the Louisiana tornado in February. These factors alone are expected to push the mission launch back to 2019, even without the complexity of changing the mission into a manned one.
Still, NASA pushes on and Lightfoot Jr. stresses that while there are challenges in the development of both SLS and Orion, things are going well. What's more, he goes on to say that the EM-1 is just a first of a series of missions that will take humans into deep space in the years to come, and that it is designed to be the test flight that in itself is already a challenging mission.
Results of the study will not be in vain as NASA will likely use the information for EM-2, the second phase of the mission which is expected to be a manned mission into deeper space.
EM-1 And EM-2
EM-1 was never really intended to be a manned mission as it was meant to be a test launch that will pave the way to take humans to Mars. The mission will take the unmanned Orion thousands of miles beyond the moon, for a period of about three weeks before its fast return to Earth.
Orion will be taken into space by the most powerful rocket in the world, SLS. It will stay in space longer than any other spacecraft built for astronauts before without docking into a space station.
Upon completing the first test flight, EM-2 will then be the first manned test flight that will likely be one of the many manned missions on the way to NASA's goal of taking humans to deep space, and eventually to Mars.