Crew In SLS Mega Rocket Flight: NASA Weighing Risks

NASA illustration

Under the current plan, a crewed SLS mission will follow with EM-2 sometime between 2021 and 2023. Gerstenmaier said, "Our priority is to ensure the safe and effective execution of all our planned exploration missions with the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket".

"We are not proposing what the outcome of NASA's assessment should be", Patricia Sanders, chairwoman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said during the meeting. "We will definitely have a [later launch date]".

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.

NASA is weighing the risk of adding astronauts to the first flight of its new megarocket, created to eventually send crews to Mars.

NASA officials said they do not feel compelled to fly the test mission with crew aboard, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's head of human space flight, told reporters on a conference call.

But NASA's acting administrator Robert Lightfoot asked on February 15 for the space agency to study the feasibility of putting people on board, and the findings of that study are expected in the coming months. "If the benefits warrant assumption of additional risk, we expect NASA to clearly and openly articulate their decision process and rationale". Not only that, but on Thursday, an independent safety panel cautioned that NASA needs a compelling reason to put astronauts on the initial flight, given the risk.

As a starting condition, NASA would maintain the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion stage for the first flight. 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.

Initiated in 2011 to take the place of the over-budget and behind-schedule Constellation program as a shuttle replacement, the new super rocket SLS is now scheduled to fly its maiden Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) in late 2018 or early 2019, launching an Orion space capsule on a trajectory that would take it around the moon and back to Earth.

The US space agency is building new deep space capabilities to take humans farther into the solar system than we have ever travelled, and ultimately to Mars.

The Space Launch System, known as SLS, will be the most powerful rocket when it flies.

However, William Hill, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration, said sending a crew on EM-1 will broaden possibilities on EM-2.

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