The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently confirmed that the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion Spacecraft will have an unmanned maiden flight despite earlier plans for a crewed mission.
According to the NASA, it is already too late into the mission planning schedule to accommodate changes from its original plan for the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), which was designed to have an unmanned first flight to test the entire flight system's capabilities.
"We appreciate the opportunity to evaluate the possibility of this crewed flight... NASA will continue to work with the Administration and Congress as we move toward a crewed flight test on EM-2 and, right now, we are very focused on accomplishing the EM-1 flight test," NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot expressed.
Strengthening EM-1 Or Keeping Expenses Down?
Lightfoot requested a study to determine whether a manned EM-1 would be feasible in February but, despite advances in rocket and space flight technologies now, NASA concluded that keeping EM-1 unmanned is the better option.
Associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate William Gerstenmaier said that the space agency looked into the possibility of a crewed EM-1 but has decided to lay additional groundwork instead.
"Conducting these tests in advance of EM-1 would provide additional data that will advance our systems knowledge faster and possibly improve the robustness of the overall plan for sending humans into deep space," Gerstenmaier explained.
An unnamed source familiar with NASA's study, however, claims that the original plan won out in the end because adding a crew to the EM-1 would blow up its cost by several hundred million dollars.
"Any time you are trying to rapidly add capabilities, you are asking for trouble in a system like this... Changing the plans midstream is where you start to incur cost that is not commensurate with your return," Casey Dreier, The Planetary Society's director of space policy, explains.
It's not that NASA is not concerned about the crew's safety but experts say adjusting the current system to consider safety for a crewed maiden flight — something the agency has not done before — would cost a lot more than just sticking to its usual program.
Of course, with NASA's budget cut, even if it was less than one percent of the total budget, finances will be a struggle for the agency.
Former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, however, defended the agency's decision.
"Cost is not the [main] problem, it's just that NASA doesn't do things that way," Garver said.